SUNDANCE '20 – 'Luxor' is a Haunting Dichotomy of Material History and Memories

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The odd relationship between cinema and archaeology, fostered by adventure films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Mummy, has had a tendency of driving thrills out of the past. Discovering our unknown history has proven itself daunting, exciting, and scary through the lens of film. With her sophomore feature Luxor, Zeina Durra breaks down the architecture of the archaeological film as we’ve come to know them. Rather than broad-chested, hunky heroes swinging through ancient temples and excavation sites, Luxor sweeps through similar sites with a slower heartbeat.

For our protagonist in Luxor is no Indiana Jones. In fact, she’s not even an archaeologist. Hana, played by Andrea Riseborough, is a British doctor working at a clinic the Jordanian-Syrian border. She returns to Luxor, a historical city of Egypt, seeking a way out of her difficult day-to-day work. In watching Luxor, we receive the same relief of Hana. As she mulls her way around ancient sites, the film evokes the same feeling as walking through a quiet museum, or running one’s fingertips over marble.

While the namesake of the film may lead one to believe that the city and its archaeological background are the basis of the film, it is actually Hana who is studied the most. Durra parallels Hana’s fraught emotional status to the uncovering of ancient artefacts, trying to reconstruct crumbling memories and structures that once stood steadfast. As Hana’s tour group stand amongst towering columns, their guide asks them to try and grasp all of the emotions that have been felt in this one place. With archaeology, Luxor points out, emotions and memories should be taken into consideration alongside the history of the objects.

Amidst her return to Luxor, Hana runs into ex-boyfriend Sultan (Karim Saleh). Forced to confront her past, Hana’s getaway becomes a fraught tour through her twenties. They bond over ancient sites, in the hotel, all around Luxor, and we are forced to imagine the bond they had once shared those 20 years ago. Hana, pained at the idea of remembering, wishes she could go back to the way things were before. They sift through old stories as if they were on a dig, trying to put two-and-two together.

Riseborough and Saleh pair well as a snuffed out flame. At times, it hurts to watch them reconnect, but the quiet companions become outspoken and feisty as they reinvigorate their tainted relationship. Riseborough is a true delight — though her head is heavy with complicated feelings of nostalgia and pain, she carries herself with a certain lightness. She’s a pleasure to watch, to take in, and to understand. It is as if Riseborough were a feather, floating around both her old memories and all of the memories of the ancient sites, brushing the surface without being able to fully touch down.

Luxor is as graceful as its archaeological predecessors, but it leaves space to process the heaviness of the past. At a short 85-minute run-time, it’s easy to watch, and yet, it’s hard to fully grasp the haunting nature of memories as they exist within the universe of the film. 

Luxor premiered at Sundance Film Festival on January 27th

by Fletcher Peters

Originally from the suburbs of Chicago, Fletcher (she/her) is now living in New York studying towards a BA in Cinema Studies. She loves crossword puzzles, low-budget off-off Broadway shows, and when she’s at home, annoying her cats. Her favorite films include Rear Window, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. She’s also a fan of everything Star Wars related. You can find her on TwitterLetterboxd, and Instagram.

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