Adam arrives in Cairo to study at the renowned Al-Azhar University and unexpectedly finds himself drawn into the centre of a dangerous world of religious and political power in writer/director Tarik Saleh’s compelling thriller.
Power is a double-edged swordby Chris Drew
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Adam (Tawfeek Barhom, The Rhythm Section) lives a modest life with his siblings and overbearing fisherman father and is shocked when he is accepted to study at the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo.
His father’s unexpected acceptance, and moving pride, of Adam’s news is a first sign of how people can pivot and catch you off guard with unexpected reactions and development.
Rapidly Adam is breathing in the hustle and bustle of the Egyptian capital and immersed in outdoor lessons in the university square, circling rows of books in the library and the ritual of prayer. Foreshadowing later events, one of his teachers recognises Adam having a calm hand.
When the university’s Grand Iman passes away, Colonel Ibrahim (Fares Fares, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) of State Security has a key role in the recruitment of a successor, assessing candidates and their affiliations. He tells his young informant Zizo (Mehdi Dehbi, A Most Wanted Man) he needs an ‘Angel’, someone young with no affiliations, to use as a pawn.
Zizo identifies Adam as a suitable prospect and takes him out on the town. But during a covert night-time meeting Zizo is brutally killed in the square, observed by a terrified Adam. Ibrahim is tasked with the investigation against the backdrop of the Grand Iman succession.
Adam is soon having covert café briefings with Ibrahim – these regular meetings are a highlight of the film as Adam gradually becomes more assured and confident – and is tasked with identifying those suspected jihadists at early morning prayer, leading to his induction in a Muslim study group headed up by the menacing Soliman (Sherwan Haji The Other Side of Hope)
This culminates in a thrilling scene where, after being tasked by Ibrahim to be seen with the forbidden book Guide to Modern Jihad, Soliman catches Adam in a lie by forcing him to make a phone call on speakerphone in front of the group to unsuccessfully corroborate where he got the book from.
Adam’s university friend Raeed (Ahmed Laissaoui, feature debut) becomes a factor in the building tension when he becomes suspicious of Adam’s actions, as is Ibrahim gradually using Adam’s family as leverage – offering an operation for his father and later threatening to burn his father’s boat.
Ibrahim is a fascinating character throughout; he clearly develops a bond working with Adam but can switch to menacing so suddenly. This is helped by Fares as a performer; with his big features and shaggy hair he doesn’t look like anyone else in the film and he can look empathetic one moment and then threatening the next.
Barhom’s performance as Adam is central to the success of the film and the actor does a terrific job of plotting Adam’s journey from wide-eyed youth, through the anxiety of carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, to someone who can hold his nerve and stay calm under the greatest of pressures.
Adam’s character development is one of the strengths of Saleh’s Cannes award-winning screenplay, weaving it through a compelling tale of increasingly raising stakes and the danger of political and religious intrigue.
Cairo Conspiracy premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Best Screenplay Award, screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 14 April 2023 in the UK.