Early on in In the Last Days of the City, a filmmaker on a panel can be heard to grumble that he and his colleagues were there to discuss cinema, but that everything they've talked about has concerned politics. This is as close as this magnificently sloppy film comes to a direct thesis statement, for that is one of the key questions presented, if not answered in director Tamir El Said's first feature: can there be a division between the political and apolitical in art? And then the related question of whether there can be a division between the political and apolitical in everyday life, and then triangulating between those, how does the artist capture something of the actual stuff of life, whether it's political or not? It is an overstuffed movie, which at 118 minutes feels notably unfocused but not unconsciously so. The main character, Khalid (Khalid Abdalla) is a documentary director lost in the process of turning his ideas and footage into a film, and at one point his editor (Islam Kamal) mutters that he has no clue what the finished movie is trying to be. And that is also something of a thesis statement.

The city of the title is Cairo, and these are its last days in that the film presents the first overt stirrings of turmoil that would, in the winter of 2011, explode into revolution against the Mubarak regime. In the Last Days of the City was in fact shot in 2009, and assembled at great length over the next several years, before premiering at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival, and those seven years of post-production are no accident. For all its overreach and disarrayed structure, the amount of calculation that went into assembling this film from a towering mountain of footage (some of it documentary, most of it scripted) is absolutely evident. It's suffused with the knowledge of what would happen later on in history, delicately foreshadowing the events of 2010 and 2011 through cagey editing (by Mohamed Abdel Gawad, Vartan Avakian, and Barbara Bossuet) that links unrelated events and even lets them seem unrelated, while crafting an overall sense of the fraught mental state of Cairo and its people that clearly evokes subsequent events.

In the moment, this is the story of Khalid's artistic block, as he keeps trying to make sense of his footage, including a particularly thoughtful interview with an acting teacher named Hanan (Hanan Youssef), whose greatly expressive middle-aged face provides a rich canvass for Khalid's camera to linger over in a series of extreme close-ups pieced together without reference to the words she speaks underneath, creating an overall sense of great soufulness and hard-won philosophy. And I do, of course, by "Khalid's camera", I really mean El Said's camera, because on top of everything else it's trying to accomplish, In the Last Days of the City is a metacritical 8½-like exercise in blurring the distinction between the movie we are watching and the movie that's being made in the movie we're watching, with the camera focusing on the screen that footage is playing on before both the image and sound snap over to the footage itself, and El Said generally proving a little more successful in trying to capture the lives of people and Cairo in relation to each other than Khalid is, though he still leaves many smudges and holes in place throughout the film.

While not drowning in his footage, Khalid is hunting for a new apartment rather petulantly, attempting to attend to his dying mother (Zeinab Mostafa), and simultaneously dealing emotionally with the fact that his lover Laila (Laila Samy) is leaving Egypt soon, leading him to obsess over her image almost as much as her physical self. And then, of course, there's the matter of the protests against Mubarak popping up over the city, in defiance of the cheery propaganda being pumped out from every source, events that Khalid obviously supposes he should be invested in filming, though he seems a bit at a loss to comprehend how. It is, in some way, exactly the right time for three of his friends and colleagues to show up for that aforementioned panel discussion: Beirut-based director Bassem (Bassem Fayad, by trade a cinematographer, including his work on this very film), mournful about his city's own political and social turmoil; Baghdad-based Hassan (Hayder Helo), spurred on to activism by the collapse of his country and city into sectarian violence after the failed American war, and Iraqi émigré Tarek (Basim Hajer), now living in Europe. It's by all means corny and forced to have a trio of filmmakers representing such precisely different aspects of life in the Arab-speaking world in the late 2000s crop up as something of a Greek chorus, or maybe the witches to Khalid's Macbeth, but this is the kind of movie whose flaws are a direct function of its giant ambition. As Khalid is situated in Cairo, so Cairo is situated in Egypt, and Egypt is situated within the MENA cultural sphere, and as much as the film is careful to be about just one city at a very specific historical moment, El Said also plainly wants it to be about Everything with a capital E.

How much he gets there is up for debate. Keeping track of all the layers of reality and the way that the status of Khalid's film informs the status of El Said's, determining why the reasonably deep bench of supporting characters - some of whom are worked into the film much more cleanly than others - are important to Khalid and how, and parsing the political chatter between himself and his friends can be genuinely exhausting, and that's strictly on a script level. There's just as much to pay attention to in the imagery, which combines painterly shots of Cairo with artless footage of the protests, asking us to evaluate whether one is "true" and the other's not, if one gets at the heart of the city and its people more than the other, or maybe the point is that they are both ways of considering a place and simply capture different aspects. That's on top of the film's really marvelous use of close-ups: Youssef is not alone in having a face that the movie falls in love with.

All of which is to say that watching In the Last Days of the City is legitimately hard, and the yield of the work it takes to get through it maybe isn't enough to earn the complexity. That's an awfully utilitarian way to think, though, and works of this much ambition and politically-alert intellect ought to be celebrated, not nitpicked. It is clumsy but gloriously so, and by all means a worthwhile slice of the invariably under-appreciated Egyptian cinema.