A generally engrossing espionage thriller that offers some slight emotional resonance marks Cairo Conspiracy into a favorable suspense drawer, recounting a young college student and son of a fisherman who goes off to study at the renowned Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt who finds himself trapped in a political espionage and political tension between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian government. A well-crafted film, mostly shot in Cairo and on coastal locations, and greatly performed by the cast, the yarns plotting can be difficult and complicated to connect all the dots to, but the film mostly pleases on a dramatic and suspenseful level. This film was also Sweden’s official submission for Best International Feature Film at the 2023 Academy Awards and the film won Best Screenplay at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.
Fifth feature by Muslim Swedish filmmaker Tarik Saleh, curiously, is far more successful than his studio film, The Contractor (2022), which was an action thriller that was a critical and commercial failure. While there are many engaging qualities, Cairo Conspiracy doesn’t quite payoff emotionally due to how dense the plot is–and a flattering effect of not completely understanding the current state of affairs in Egypt that hasn’t made much of a splash since the Arab Spring which occurred nearly 13 years ago. Anyone expecting a mature, taut, and impassioned espionage thriller in the vein of Syriana and a John Le Carre political thriller that focuses more on character and human principles should be satisfied.
Courtesy Samuel Goldwyn Films
The saga begins with films protagonist Adam (Tawfeek Barhom), a song to a fisherman in the Egyptian town of Manzala who receives ecstatic news from his local imam that he is getting a state sponsorship to study Islamic thought at Al-Azhar University. It’s one of the most prestigious Islamic universities in the Middle East. He departs with his father and finds unexpected results at the university. His fellow classmates are more secular than expected–one even offers him a cigarette–and invites him to a club. Things get more unusual when the head imam suddenly dies of a stroke while speaking to a crowd of university students, and it doesn’t take long for the conversation to instantly shift from fellow imams on who the successor will be.
To make things even more bizarre and even startling, Adam ends up witnessing his fellow classmate being murdered by masked attackers. It doesn’t take long to find out he was spotted at the scene by a bedraggled intelligence agent, Ibrahim (a superb Fares Fares) who informs Adam that his dead friend was an informant for Egyptian state-sponsored intelligence, who was reporting back to the Egyptian government the imams subversive beliefs. Adam finds himself in a wormhole of distrust, paranoia, and anxiety. He either remains orienting to the state that wants to sustain Egypt status as more of a secular state before it regresses back to a religious state, or if he doesn’t cooperate or makes one bad slip, he can face being murdered like his friend. Ibrahiim takes orders from the state that puts pressure on Adam to further infiltrate main imams and cliques, where he discovers stark hypocrisy and other deep secrets that are hidden from the Islamic community.
The film’s second half feels more vigorous than the buildup, and it’s a type of film where you will connect the characters, narrative, and conflicts a lot better on repeating reviewing. It’s also part of the narrative, where both Adam and Ibrahim begin to learn what’s beneath the surface of such institutions as religion and state. For Adam, he begins to realize his religion is being perverted by power-monger opportunists and their quest for power is nothing more than vice to harm other fellow Muslims that are more open to a secular nation.
Adam often reports back to Ibrahim very secretly at a coffee shop where they discuss his observations as they are turned in opposite directions as they drink coffee, eat muffins, and pretend to read newspapers. The exchanges between Ibrahim and Adam are superbly mounted and scripted, the dynamics between both men and how they shift their principles throughout the story remain the highlights of the film. For Ibrahim, he begins to learn that the state establishment has been co-opted by the very same hypocrisy and corruption the state is attempting to combat against. As the film unravels Saleh’s satire and drama ignites even more, and the yarn becomes a sophisticated, committed, and valiant puzzle box of a film.
Cairo Conspiracy is now showing in limited theaters.