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Adam seems like an easy target. A fisherman’s son from Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, he earns a scholarship at a prestigious Cairo university for Islamic studies. No one will miss Adam if he disappears, and his naive, doe-eyed nature makes him perfect for recruitment. Cairo Conspiracy, a thriller from Swedish filmmaker Tarik Saleh, follows the student into a web of religious and political intrigue. A steady sense of verisimilitude elevates the material—in every scene, characters and situations suggest unwavering authenticity—and yet Saleh undermines that goodwill in service of an easy ending that squanders its premise.
We spend some time with Adam (Tawfeek Barhom) and his family before he departs for Al-Azhar University. He comes off as a serious young man who wants a better life, while remaining devoted to his family back home. Shortly after he arrives in Cairo, the death of the Grand Imam—the head of the university and an authority of Sunni Islam—creates a power vacuum. The school and the government are closely linked, which means State Security hand-picks their replacement, a sheikh whose ideas reflect the Egyptian president. Their choice is not exactly popular at the university, where another sheikh (Makram Khoury) commands the most respect, so a State Security functionary, Ibrahim (Fares Fares), recruits Adam to infiltrate and influence the selection process. Adam proves to be a valuable asset, a double agent who has the ears of powerful men, except they keep getting closer to discovering he is a spy.
Cairo Conspiracy, which won Best Screenplay at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, was originally called Boy from Heaven, a name that was changed for its release in North America. No doubt the studio changed the title because it is not literal-minded enough, and yet Boy from Heaven is a better fit for the material. It suggests a pervasive sense of cynicism from everyone who uses Adam for their own needs, whether it’s Ibrahim, who puts him in danger, or the militant student factions within the university who want to radicalize further. All the scheming and manipulation would be unbearable—too cruel at Adam’s expense—except everyone seems to underestimate him. He may be a fisherman’s son, but Adam correctly sees through everyone who wants to manipulate him. He may be a neophyte, but he is not stupid, and part of the tension of Cairo Conspiracy is figuring out what he wants and what he thinks. This is an unusual spy thriller where the protagonist, expertly portrayed by Barhom, is the biggest enigma.
The setting, both inside and outside of the university, serves as a commentary on Adam’s evolving mental state. Saleh does not shoot in the actual Al-Azhar University, and instead uses Istanbul’s Suleymaniye Mosque as a substitute. Its offices and courtyards are intimidating precisely because they serve many purposes: Adam listens to clerics give lectures about Islam, only to spy and scheme moments later. There is the cumulative sense that nowhere is safe, an idea that’s brought home by Adam’s meager living quarters. He shares a dorm with at least 20 other students, all stacked on each other with bunk beds reaching toward the ceiling, so the meager area between their mattress and bed above is the only place they find any semblance of privacy. Outside the university, Cairo is a city teeming with people and traffic, a kind of secular contrast to pious life within the university walls. Saleh shoots everything from Adam’s point of view, with his camera observing while simultaneously building a sense of paranoia.
As Ibrahim gets closer to installing his preferred sheikh, there is a growing sense Cairo Conspiracy does not exactly want to take sides. To Western audiences in particular, there is no meaningful intellectual or ideological difference between the sheiks, at least not beyond who various groups prefer. This can be occasionally frustrating, almost as if Saleh wants to play in a political sandbox without taking a side, but maybe his ambivalence is part of a deeper point. Ibrahim and the agency he represents are deeply corrupt, which means it is disturbing on its face that the government would interfere in religious and academic matters. Within the State Security agency, we come to see additional nuance: Ibrahim is a handler who cares about Adam, albeit in his own way, while Adam’s superior is an authoritarian who will arrest, murder, and torture his way to the goals.
Ibrahim’s impasse with his amoral superiors is finally where the film stakes a moral ground, and for a while, it seems as if Saleh will follow his premise to its natural conclusion. Like the works of spy fiction master John le Carré, Cairo Conspiracy understands that believing in institutions must also mean we are wary of them. But in a crucial final scene, one where Adam faces torture and death, Saleh loses his nerve and shifts his film into a facile parable about what it means to be a good Muslim. One line in particular, delivered by someone who should know better, breaks the fourth wall and tells us exactly what we should think about Adam’s private agenda. It is a frustrating cop-out because, up until that point, Cairo Conspiracy gave the impression it was using a thriller framework to say something difficult about corruption, and the uneasy alliance between politics and religion.
By pulling its punches at the most crucial moment, this film ultimately veers from a great film into a pretty good one. Given the unwavering confidence up until that point, such a misstep cannot help but be a disappointment.
Cairo Conspiracy opens at Angelika Pop-Up in Union Market and the Angelika Mosaic in Fairfax on Feb. 10.