First terms at uni are pretty standard stuff: burning food in the oven, ruining multiple batches of laundry... and becoming embroiled in a Church vs State proxy war. Well, that last one might only be true of Tarik Saleh’s compelling, if slightly overcooked political thriller Cairo Conspiracy.
The Cannes screenplay award winner opens with a powerful shot of a rickety raft being tossed around by tumultuous ocean waves, doubling as a neat metaphor for our protagonist Adam’s (Tawfeek Barhom) personal journey. The son of a widowed fisherman, his Islamic sensibilities have been nurtured – and sometimes beaten – into him over the course of his childhood, The result is a young man with a strong religious compass, but no backbone. It isn’t until Adam receives a scholarship to attend Cairo's prestigious Al-Azhar University that he’s able to swim beyond the confines of his humble fishbowl.
Despite being surrounded by devout Muslims at the world’s oldest Islamic educational institution, the young village boy’s innocence is glaringly obvious, so much so that his new friend Zizo (Mehdi Dehbi) offers him an ominous warning. ‘You have a pure soul, but every second in this place will corrupt it,’ he says, before proceeding to expose Adam to the pressure valve of Cairo’s steamy underground raves, as good friends do. The blaring traffic horns and bustling street markets represent the film’s most colourful moments. However, this rousing boy-meets-world adventure takes a dramatic turn into ‘Da Vinci Code’ territory after the sudden death of the Grand Imam and the brutal murder of Adam’s friend.
This rousing boy-meets-world adventure takes a turn into ‘Da Vinci Code’ territory
Before either body is cold, a swarm of shady political figures emerge with nefarious intentions to cherry pick a Grand Imam who will carry out the state’s bidding. The task of rigging the election falls to Colonel Ibrahim (Fares Fares), who wastes no time in recruiting young Adam to spy on the inner workings of Al-Azhar.
Alongside his Q’uranic studies, Adam moonlights as a sleeper agent, infiltrating extremist groups and toppling hypocritical religious leaders. Saleh has form when it comes to holding a mirror to Egyptian authority with his 2017 film The Nile Hilton – a project that got him banned from the country.
Refreshingly, the Swedish-born director opts against picking from the low-hanging fruit of indicting Islam and hones in on the fallibility of human nature and our weakness for earthly desires instead. Cairo Conspiracy doesn’t quite deliver the dazzling fireworks its promises, but it’s still a thought-provoking watch.
In UK cinemas Fri Apr 14.