You do not have to be conversant in Egyptian politics to get swept away by the intrigue of Cairo Conspiracy, Tarik Saleh’s follow-up to The Nile Hilton Incident (2017). The Swedish Egyptian filmmaker’s second movie was titled Boy from Heaven when it premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, where it earned a Best Screenplay prize. It is easy to see why. Saleh mixes a classic story of maturation and dresses with the trappings of a political thriller. Intimations of real-life events, like the Arab Spring, give the movie a sense of consequence. It was Sweden's candidate for the Oscars but failed to secure a nomination.
Son of a Fisherman: Barhom gets in deep waters in "Cairo Conspiracy" / Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films
Adam (Tawfeek Barhom) is the teenage son of a poor fisherman. His piousness earned him a full scholarship to Al-Azhar in Cairo. It is the best place to study the faith in the whole world. But this is not just any religious university. It is also a center of political power, as important as the presidential palace. The elderly Grand Imam coughs blood on a white handkerchief - dramatic shorthand for impending death. The government wants a friendly candidate in his place, curtailing anyone tolerant of the Islam Brotherhood. Colonel Ibrahim (Fares Fares) must make this happen. He is a frazzled family man with a natural talent for cloak-and-dagger intrigue. Alas, his informer Zizo (Mehdi Dhebi) is rushing to the exit door with suicidal disregard for the consequences. Before leaving, he must provide a replacement. Adam is about to get an education he does not expect.
Saleh works wonders with Cinematographer Pierre Aïm, building a classicist tragedy about innocence lost. The filmmaker is persona non grata in Egypt, forcing the production to shoot in Turkey. The Süleymanye mosque stands for the real Al-Azhar, and Istanbul for Cairo. There is a timeless quality to the scenes covering ceremonies and lessons, in such a way that when a kid produces a cellphone, the effect is jarring. The school is like a portal into the past. When murder by scimitar happens in the central square, you don’t bat an eyelash. Of course, it should be with a sword!
Student life dynamic will remind you of old-school dramas about young people secluded in institutions, left to their devices. Adam is the newcomer, walking with a target on his back. He gets a proper friend-enemy in Rahed (Ahmed Laissaoui), a bunk neighbor with deep blue eyes that don’t betray his hostility - the actor looks disquietingly like a very young Chris Cornell -. He may seem like a traditional bully, but mild-mannered Zizo is more dangerous, if anything, because he pushes Adam to the darkest path.
Succession, Imam-style: Razmi Choukair makes his power play in "Cairo Conspiracy" / Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films
Before delivering him to Ibrahim, Zizo must earn Adam’s trust. He takes him out for a night in the town. They go to a stuffy, crowded club where a joyful rock band performs on a stage. This incursion into the secular world reminds you there is a world outside the bubble closing in on our protagonist. The repentant agent’s mournful demeanor should raise alarms in our hero, but he is too dazed by his new life to notice. Zizo looks like a dead man walking. The movie fails to explore his betrayal of Adam. He surely knows what is in store for him.
Adam is a somewhat limited character. His value is purity ripe for corruption. Blame it on his youth. On the other hand, Ibrahim looks so rich in life experience that you half-wish the movie would concentrate on him. His steely demeanor towards the recruit would not be out of place in any spy movie. However, this is a kind of performance. He is just another harried bureaucrat, both victimizer, and victim. There is very little secret agent insouciance in his mad dashes over chaotic Cairo streets on his junky car. He gets home to an indifferent son plugged into a PlayStation and a mostly invisible wife. James Bond, he is not. More emasculation comes into the mix when we see him interacting with his boss, a younger man who harasses him mercilessly, taking pleasure in his brutishness.
At the top of the intrigue: Barhom looks down to his destiny in "Cairo Conspiracy" / Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films
As Adam moves deeper into palace intrigues that involve dismantling a sleeper Muslim Brotherhood cell and sabotaging an Imam candidate unsavory for the presidency, he gains awareness of the dangers of being a disposable pawn. Things take a turn when the elderly, blind Sheik Negm (Makram Khouri) confesses to foul murder. It is a trap, but to what purpose? Ibrahim has no choice but to keep him in a cell of the Security Ministry while Adam tries to find out the truth. By then, the innocent boy from heaven is wise to how the system works and is maneuvering to save his life.
If the sunny, majestic Al-Azhar surprises as the setting of dark intrigue, there is no hope of finding anything but malfeasance at the Security Ministry. The massive complex becomes the main stage for the movie’s final stretch. Its banal offices, wide corridors, and barren cells speak of state-sponsored violence without actually showing any. Still, for all its dark intimations, Cairo Conspiracy excels at finding how ridiculous these agents of chaos and mayhem can be. At times, the movie veers perilously close to comedy. Again, that might not be such a bad thing. Check out the barely contained frustration of General Al Sakran (Mohammad Bahri), the highest higher-up in view, stewing at his minion’s incapacity. Or the escalating rancor between Ibrahim and his boss.
Lock down: Fares looks on his latest prisoner in "Cairo Conspiracy" / Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films
Without spelling out his motivations, you can see something like a conscience has grown in the secret agent, who tries to maneuver to save Adam and his skin. He does not know that the pupil can pull one over the master. You may find a dash of make-believe in the film’s conclusion, but it is hard to resent it. It is not entirely a happy ending. The final shot is ambiguous in its tone and implications. You may survive a nightmarish incursion through the halls of power, but what is left when the institutions that support our life - state, and religion - let you down? There are no easy answers in Cairo Conspiracy, but the questions remain out in the sun.
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