Director – Tarik Saleh – 2022 – Sweden, France, Finland – Cert. 12a – 126m
A naive, young, Egyptian student at a top Islamic university is recruited as a spy for the secret police – out in UK cinemas on Friday, April 14th
Adam (Tawfeek Barhom), a bookworm born and raised in rural Egypt where he works as a fisherman like his father before him, visits the local mosque where his trusted Imam gives him a letter informing him he’s been accepted into Cairo’s prestigious Al-Azhar University, the top seat of Sunni Muslim learning and thought. He’s worried his widowed father won’t let him go, but his father fatally accepts it as the Will of Allah. In his university dorm, Adam finds his bed taken by fellow student Raed (Ahmed Laissaoui) and winds up in the bunk below. (The university is for men only: no women. At least, we see none here.)
Unexpectedly, the Grand Imam, the head of the university, dies and a successor must be chosen. At the security forces building, the General (Mohammad Bakri) listens to the analysis by Colonel Ibrahim (Fares Fares) of the possible candidates, throwing all files on the floor except one – the one with whom the President’s views align, the candidate who must win. Alas, the institution’s favoured candidate is one of the others. Ibrahim will see to it that the President’s favoured candidate gets elected – but there’s a problem: Zizo (Mehdi Debhi), his snitch inside the university, believes his cover has been blown, so Ibrahim tells him to recruit a new contact from among the University freshers.
Zizo manages to befriend the unsuspecting Adam, who subsequently witnesses his being hacked to death by blade-wielding thugs. Adam subsequently finds himself regularly meeting Ibrahim in a café and being given instructions he must carry out as to who he should mix with at the university in order to gain their confidence and report back on their activities to Ibrahim. Thus, Adam is propelled into the unpleasant, extreme circle of Soliman (Sherwan Haji) who acts as assistant to Sheikh Al Durani (Ramzi Choukair).
The Sunni Muslim academic background clearly has the potential to grab the audience attention, yet perhaps because Saleh fails to explain much about it to give a Western audience a way in, it doesn’t achieve this, instead rendering much of the proceedings pedestrian. There are exceptions: a reciting contest (where rivals recite texts from the Koran to an assembled audience) is something I’d not seen before, but elsewhere, little is made of the system for choosing a new Grand Imam. Clerics are played as everything from simpletons in the pocket of the the secret police through hypocrites such as Al Durani, who has had a child by a young girl he hides in a house in a ‘secret marriage’, to holy men possessed of great spiritual wisdom such as the so-called ‘Blind Imam’ (Makram Khoury).
The implications of the way the Egyptian security forces operate and can impact the lives of ordinary citizens are pretty terrifying – perhaps that subject matter is what helped the film secure a place on the 15-title shortlist (but not an actual nomination) for Best Foreign Language Film. It has apparently upset the Egyptian authorities who, following his previous film The Nile Hilton Incident (2017), which dealt with police corruption, told director Saleh to leave the country and decreed that he would be imprisoned should he ever return.
With the stakes as high as that, I really wanted to like the film. Yet despite a few electrifying moments, particularly in the final twenty or so minutes when Adam’s situation suddenly gets markedly worse, this manages to turn what ought to have been compelling spy thriller in the manner of a slow, understated John le Carré narrative sort of way into a largely bland watching experience. A thriller which fails to thrill. It also fails to illuminate the potentially fascinating phenomenon of Islamic higher education.
Cairo Conspiracy is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, April 14th.