The Cairo Conspiracy, Tarik Saleh

Thriller ‘Cairo Conspiracy’ Critiques Institutional Power

Beneath the taut suspense of the political and religious machinations for control in Tarik Saleh’s Cairo Conspiracy emerges a stream of ideas. 

Cairo Conspiracy
Tarik Saleh
Picturehouse
14 April 2023 (UK)

Following his crime thriller, The Nile Hilton Incident (2017), Egyptian-Swedish director Tarik Saleh continues to affirm his reputation in the genre. Cairo Conspiracy, or, Boy From Heaven (Walad min al-Janna), is an accomplished film. It was recognised at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, winning the award for best screenplay. As with his previous film, Saleh constructs his thriller with meticulous attention to detail.

Adam (Tawfeek Barhom), the son of a fisherman, receives the honour of being selected to attend Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the heart of Sunni Islam. Shortly after his arrival, the Grand Imam dies, and State Security begins to covertly plan how to influence the succession. 

Adam befriends Zizo (Mehdi Dehbi), a fellow student, and after witnessing his murder, learns he was Colonel Ibrahim’s (Fares Fares) secret informant. Adam is forced to replace him and help the Colonel ensure a Grand Imam friendly to the President is chosen.

The Nile Hilton Incident and Cairo Conspiracy are films about entrapment. The adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”, may be true for Saleh. From police commander Noridin Mostafa’s (Fares Fares) investigation into the murder of a singer that was obstructed by the powerful elite to Adam turned informant, both men are reduced to pawns in a game played by more powerful men. Despite transposing the mature for the young protagonist, a detective for a religious student, and even having Fares switch to the antagonist in Cairo Conspiracy, both films have clear constants.

Saleh’s interest lies in telling stories about institutional corruption. If these stories are weighed down by a cynical point of view, they’re not without a glimmer of hope. The meta-interpretation of switching Fares from protagonist to antagonist symbolises that corruption is contagious. Either that or Ibrahim’s affection for Adam, which partially redeems him, is symbolic of the virtue of hope.

The cynicism of The Nile Hilton Incident and Cairo Conspiracy chimes with the frustrations across the world: the absence of accountability for privileged men and women in positions of power. Separating the two films is the philosophical and theological nature of the latter. Beneath the taut suspense of the political and religious machinations for control over the university, and the religious hardline, emerges a stream of ideas. 

When Adam is introduced, he’s presented as a mild-mannered and humble young man. Immediately drawing the audience’s sympathy, Saleh ensures to express his intelligence. The young man’s emotional vulnerability and lack of confidence pays-off later when he gets caught in Ibrahim’s web. Saleh understands that this type of storytelling can thrive on innocence lost or the person’s power taken from them, transforming or scaring them.  

What makes Cairo Conspiracy compelling is the way in which Ibrahim manipulates Adam. It’s set up as though the young man has the agency to choose to accept or decline his offer. Any free will, however, is an illusion. Adam not only has himself to worry about, but also his father, and Ibrahim manipulates this weakness. It’s a compelling moral set-up, where the young man’s choice to reluctantly accept might be wrong, but it’s done with good intentions. Saleh keenly explores this moral contradiction because even if Adam sacrifices his values and beliefs to survive, he will remain morally nuanced. 

It feels inevitable that the victim of manipulation momentarily becomes the culprit. In this story of lost innocence, who takes Adam’s – is it religion or the state?

Ibrahim tells him, “We don’t decide our own fate.” He implies God does, but the young man is aware that men also decide the fate of other men. God’s guiding hand versus free will is the crux of Cairo Conspiracy. Adam is spiritually devout but subconsciously aware that God is an idea. 

Have the experiences with Ibrahim created an intellectual shift, weakening his spiritual certainty? If he has lost his naïve and innocent point of view, he understands that men live in God’s light and the shadows. 

Towards Cairo Conspiracy‘s end, there’s a subtle suggestion that Adam is undergoing an internal transformation, or his experiences have placed an older, wiser head on young shoulders. Still devout to God but wiser to reality, this is the end of his beginning. 

In the final scene, Adam is asked, “What have you learnt?” He doesn’t answer, and maybe that’s the point. Saleh either wants or expects us to think for ourselves. The question is asked from one character to another, but it’s as much a question directed at the film’s audience, even as the fourth wall remains intact. 

Saleh successfully crafts an entertainingly taut and suspenseful thriller with criticism of institutional, political, and social corruption. It’s also a coming-of-age story about a young man interrogating the intersection between the mortal and spiritual worlds. 

If there’s a shortcoming, it’s Saleh’s reticence to explore the deeper social and political reasons for the state to control the tone of the Imam’s rhetoric. In one scene, the director does offer a brief glimpse into the implications of the state and religion working in parallel. Saleh comments on the use of religion to suppress the voice of the people, but his reluctance to go further denies Cairo Conspiracy an opportunity to elevate its importance.    

RATING 7 / 10
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