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Review: ‘Cairo Conspiracy’ mixes religion and politics in a compelling thriller

One man looking over the shoulder of another.
Fares Fares, left, and Tawfeek Barhom in “Cairo Conspiracy.”
(Samuel Goldwyn Films)
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The uncomfortably thin veil between religion and politics is intriguingly lifted in Tarik Saleh’s “Cairo Conspiracy,” a low-key fictional thriller set at Egypt’s prestigious Al-Azhar University.

Shot on location in Turkey, with Istanbul’s Suleymaniye mosque doubling for Al-Azhar, the Sweden-France-Finland co-production served as Sweden’s official Oscar submission.

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Also taking home best screenplay from last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it was known by the only slightly less generic “Boy From Heaven,” the adroitly plotted scenario unfolds through the initially idealistic eyes of Adam (Tawfeek Barhom), a soft-spoken fisherman’s son who is offered state sponsorship to study at the “beacon of the Islamic world.”

Initially, Adam’s plunge from his small village into the bustling streets of Cairo doesn’t seem all that different from the journey of self-discovery undertaken by his fellow freshmen.

He’s soon taken under the wing of the worldly Zizo (Mehdi Dehbi), who informs him that Red Bull is actually halal, but the budding friendship turns out to have been orchestrated by a higher power.

“Your soul is pure, but every second in this place will corrupt it,” Zizo cryptically warns him.

After witnessing Zizo’s murder moments later, Adam finds himself recruited to take his place as an informant at the behest of Colonel Ibrahim (frequent Saleh collaborator Fares Fares), a government investigator whose rather dorky, disheveled appearance belies a decidedly more nefarious agenda.

Unbeknownst to Adam, he’s the unwitting pawn in a power struggle between church and state sparked by the death of the elderly chief imam.

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Ahead of the installation of a puppet candidate, Adam is instructed to infiltrate a study group run by the radical Muslim Brothers with an agenda of their own as to who should take the Grand Imam’s place.

There may be a whiff of Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” in the air, but the Stockholm-born Saleh, who first made a name for himself as one of Sweden’s most prominent graffiti artists, steers clear of splashy reveals, allowing the storyline to build to an intense simmer without boiling over into more conventional stuff.

For that, there’s “The Contractor,” another recent Saleh-directed release starring Chris Pine, which takes a more mainstream, less interesting approach to the action-thriller milieu.

But here the focus remains primarily on the cat-and-mouse dynamic between Barhom’s increasingly cynical Adam and always effective character actor Fares’ deceptive intelligence agent.

Although Barhom’s obedient character remains a bit of a cipher throughout, it’s under a shroud of doomed acceptance as he begins to realize that his grooming as “a model of the ideal student” was a coordinated effort that began much earlier than he first thought.

The inherent backstage machinations and underlying corruption and hypocrisy that go with the church/state backdrop may not be unfamiliar territory, but Saleh, who controversially took on the 2011 Egyptian revolution in his acclaimed 2017 political thriller, “The Nile Hilton Incident,” keeps it all quite compelling.

‘Cairo Conspiracy’

In Egyptian Arabic with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours

Playing: Laemmle Glendale

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