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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
Church and state collide in the corridors of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, where the students square off in Qur’an recital contests and the head of the Muslim Brotherhood eats Big Macs on the sly. On the prospectus it’s billed as “a beacon of Islam”. It is a warren of dark corners, a place so thick with intrigue that even the most astute student of conspiracy thrillers may sometimes find themselves struggling to keep up.
Our hero is Adam, a lowly fisherman’s son who’s awarded a scholarship, only to be promptly recruited as a government informant. Now he’s working for Colonel Ibrahim, the wily, bear-like state enforcer, wedged in between the warring factions, scared half out of his wits. Each night, he beds down in a cramped dormitory, surrounded by his fellow students. For all he knows, they might be spies and informants themselves.
Galvanised by the sudden death of the chief imam, Tarik Saleh’s political saga turns progressively knottier and more claustrophobic. But it’s also horribly tense, richly textured and showcases a terrific supporting performance from Fares as the tale’s shadowy Thomas Cromwell figure. Ibrahim has been in the game long enough to view himself as a battle-hardened survivor. More likely, he’s just another pawn in the game, to be toppled and replaced as part of some wider gambit.
The film was first released with the title Boy from Heaven. Saleh said he originally wanted to use the title Al-Azhar. Distributors discouraged him and asked if he had thought of an alternative title. Yes, Boy from Heaven. It was under this title that the film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, where Saleh won the Best Screenplay award. But when it came time to release the film in France, distributor Memento Films felt this was not a selling title. They suggested Cairo Conspiracy. Saleh agreed and, sure enough, the film was a bigger box office hit than anticipated.