Director: Tarik Saleh
Stars: Tawfeek Barhom, Fares Fares, Younes Medhat
Originally monikered Boy from Heaven when it tagged laurels for its screenplay at Cannes, now lumbered with the uninspiring English title Cairo Conspiracy, Tarik Saleh’s subdued political thriller aspires to the poetic leanings of the former while unfortunately living up to the meat-n-potatoes drabness of the latter.
So dry I almost forgot I was watching it while I was watching it, the film charts the exploits of Adam (Tawfeek Barhom), a fisherman’s son just bright enough (apparently) to get himself enrolled at Egypt’s prestigious Al-Azhar University, yet clueless enough to become a pawn in a dangerous ploy to rig the election of a new Grand Imam – the university’s highest ranking religious leader – when the sitting one abruptly dies. Tasked with pulling the strings is Adam’s soon-to-be handler Ibrahim (Fares Fares); a world-weary soul with a streak of compassion for the boy whose life he is about to absolutely ruin.
When Ibrahim’s current ‘angel’ Zizo (Mehdi Dehbi) is unceremoniously murdered on campus – right in front of Adam, no less – Ibrahim closes in to ensnare his replacement, already picked out by the now-deceased spy. Being wholly unconnected to the political struggle within the university’s upper echelons, Adam is the perfect patsy. Writer/director Saleh leans on the wryness of referring to Adam (biblically named) as an angel, and fashions a character so guileless as to appear as innocent as the cherub-like visitors that grace Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro, or even Pier Paolo Pasolini’s masterpiece Theorem. Unfortunately Adam engenders no comparative sense of wonder in those he meets. Instead his naivety is often simply exasperating, and Cairo Conspiracy too often feels like watching Forrest Gump trying to navigate Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Barhom’s performance made this viewer imagine what it might be like if someone lobotomised Raymond Cruz.
Saleh’s film is appropriately dubious of institutions, but it doesn’t quite have the belly to follow it’s cynicism through to the inevitable conclusion. Attempting to have it’s cake and eat it, the film swerves away from its obvious ending for a finale that feels like something of a deus ex machina crafted specifically to give Adam a miraculous out. The student becomes the teacher and we’re left in a curious place where an angel – wisened to the greed and violence of mankind – is left… disenfranchised? An odd final statement in a film that might have used its time to agitate viewers into activism against corrupt regimes. Instead Cairo Conspiracy tends toward ambivalence as the best way of keeping sane and staying alive, though that’s hardly going to spark reform now is it?
Admirably, perhaps, Saleh seems averse to the trappings of a Hollywood thriller, favouring a more grounded approach. But he could’ve used a dash of spice to keep us invested. Instead his film is so soporific as to openly invite distraction. There’s little inspiration in the steady workmanlike craft that’s presented here. Cairo Conspiracy is competently mounted, no doubt, but it engenders so little interest or involvement. Tension is missing. And this seems, fatally, to be down to how foolish and uninteresting Adam routinely appears to be. Fares, ultimately, carries the film. His harangued and equally disenfranchised spook having at least a few rough edges for us to get caught on. It isn’t quite enough.
After a run of nimble, interesting acquisitions, this is the first Picturehouse Entertainment pick in a while to feel like it wasn’t particularly worth the gamble.