There is a rationale behind the idea of separation and church that, to many who live in a nation based on such principles, feels distinctly important. Religion is often experienced uniquely, and those in power can claim divine inspiration or a lifelong right to rule, subverting any need for free elections or for any checks and balances. When a particular faith may as well be the law of the land, it’s not surprising that both political and religious leaders would try to influence the appointment and policy of the other.
Adam (Tawfeek Barhom) is the son of a fisherman who is thrilled to have the opportunity to study at Al-Azhar University, the preeminent institution for Sunni Islam in Cairo. When he arrives, he is recruited by Ibrahim (Fares Fares), a government official charged publicly with investigating the death of his previous informant but who is actually intent on installing the Egyptian president’s pick to become the next Grand Imam. Adam is a true believer but also comes to understand the stakes if he does not do what his new handler demands.
Cairo Conspiracy, which was previously released as Boy From Heaven, is Sweden’s official Oscar submission for Best International Feature. Like past entries such as And Then We Danced, this film takes place entirely in a country other than Sweden and looks at a dominant culture there. Adam comes to Cairo fully committed to his faith, and gradually begins to see how that can be perverted, whether it’s from his bunkmate who hardly expresses kindness, or Ibrahim, who emphasizes ritually washing his feet but displays little true respect for the tenets of their shared religion.
Adam is a very sympathetic character, someone pulled in multiple directions by those able to exert their power over him. It starts with his father and his imam at home who have different ideas for what his future should be, and then sees him admonished by other students for singing the words of the Quran, which he quickly learns is forbidden. Adam’s intentions are pure and his experience at an institution that is supposed to mold him into a religious leader are anything but that. Barhom turns in an endearing lead performance that further humanizes Adam and makes it possible to tether to his experience of this complicated situation.
Cairo Conspiracy, as conveyed by its title, is indeed a thriller that sets up the generations-long influence of Al-Azhar and the pivotal moment of the installation of a new Grand Imam that could tip the balance of power for centuries to come. That its adherents are Sunni Muslims is not entirely relevant, since rule by alleged divine right is a common theme across many religions. The hypocrisy of those who profess devotion to a particular faith and yet exhibit behaviors that are entirely incompatible with its tenets is also a universal concept, one that plays a lingering and disturbing role in this film’s events.
This film should not be seen as an indictment of religion either in general or as portrayed here, but rather of the corruptible nature of any organized body. Adam doesn’t know any better and in truth has no way to escape his fate, and Ibrahim, as played by Fares, exhibits some degree of kindness towards his mole. He too is just performing his duties as commanded to him, and he knows that his refusal to do so would simply result in his replacement by someone with less compassion towards the unsuspecting Adam. There is plenty to contemplate in this well-made and well-acted entry from filmmaker Talik Saleh.
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Cairo Conspiracy has been acquired for distribution in the United States by Samuel Goldwyn Films and will be released in early 2023.