‘Cairo Conspiracy’: A web of lies, spun in a world much like our own


(3.5 stars)

Sweden’s official Oscar submission in the foreign language category, “Cairo Conspiracy” did not end up with a nomination, but it was up for the Palme d’Or at Cannes this past spring. It didn’t win, though its writer-director, Tarik Saleh, a former Stockholm graffiti artist whose father is Egyptian, took home the festival’s screenwriting prize.

Set at Cairo’s Al Azhar University — the most prestigious Islamic school in the world, founded in 972 — the story is a wild one: a tense political thriller centering on Adam (Tawfeek Barhom), a naive freshman from the sticks who gets recruited as a mole by Col. Ibrahim (Fares Fares), an officer from the state security agency, to manipulate the election of the school’s grand imam, one of the most powerful positions in Sunni Islam. The goal: to finagle things, by whatever means necessary, so that the government’s preferred candidate is chosen over another cleric being groomed by the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that some have called a terrorist organization.

It is an engrossing tale, full of betrayal and chicanery, and it casts the Egyptian political-military complex and the religious hierarchy as riddled with corruption. And yet when asked, in an interview contained in the film’s press material, whether the film was a critique of Islam or the political regime in Egypt, Salah said simply, “No, it’s a made-up story.”

Yes, yes, just like most movies. Saleh’s answer smacks of disingenuousness because “Cairo Conspiracy” paints such a bleak picture of power. (The characters are all fictional, but one scene, set in a government office building, lingers briefly but notably on a portrait of President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi.) Though shot mostly in Turkey, it feels very much situated in a real place, in the real world.

And that’s its scary strong suit.

As Adam, Barhom makes for the perfect guide to this festering edifice of ethical rot. His character has barely chosen a bunk before he witnesses the execution of a fellow student (Mehdi Dehbi), Adam’s predecessor in the role of Ibrahim’s spy. Adam’s credulous sense of wonder parallels our own, which makes a moment of treacherousness he succumbs to early in the film — at the behest of Ibrahim, in order to ingratiate himself with the leader (Sherwan Haji) of some radical students — all the more shocking.

Throughout the film, which places the protagonist in ever-increasing danger, Adam is referred to as Ibrahim’s “angel,” yet the film seems otherwise stocked with devils in almost every corner. At one point, Adam’s only friend (Ahmed Laissaoui) asks, after he has been double-crossed by Adam, “What have you gotten into?”

It is an excellent question, in a narrative that — whether offering a critique of the real world or not — finds much to interrogate and, yes, critique about human nature. In the end, precious little of it holds out hope for our species.

Unrated. At the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market and the Angelika Film Center Mosaic. Contains brief violence, corporal punishment and some mature thematic elements. In Arabic with subtitles. 125 minutes.

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