Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 27, 2023 10:27 am 
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Intrigues between centers of political and religious power in Egypt


Tarik Saleh proposes that the grand imam of Al Azhar, the ancient center of Muslim authority and learning in Cairo founded in 970 AD, dies and an el-Sisi-like head of state seeks to influence the choice of a successor through inserting a spy- manipulator. The neat and intricate if somewhat fishy plot, initially inspired by Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, won Saleh the screenplay award at Cannes.

Its Arabic title translates as "Boy from Heaven," but here it's called Cairo Conspiracy, La Conspiration du Caire in French. The French title of his 2017 film, which also has a breathless criminal action noir quality, is Le Caire Confidentiel, The Nile Hilton Incident over here. These films are breathless and fascinating but for some reason don't leave a very strong impression. This may come partly from their being fabulously skillful mockups of Cairo, made from far away: Saleh, a Swedish citizen born with of an Egyptian father, is persona non grata in Egypt and can't set foot there. The other reason is that the plotting is intricate, but at some points neither convincing nor possible to follow, and at one remove from personal emotion. Nonetheless this is a very watchable film and was a hit at Cannes for good reason.

Cairo Conspiracy was made in Turkey and Sweden. This is what movies do, but it's still fascinating and amazing. How did Saleh make the street scenes look so much like Cairo? How did did he recreate Al Azhar, with its hundreds of religious students in their red-banded turbans and prim outfits? Egypt's security ministry building? Cairo's government leaders and staff aren't as tricky a feat of mise en scène mockup, but where did he get all these Egyptian, or Egyptian-sounding, actors speaking Eghptian dialect with Egyptian accents? These are questions to be resolved in interviews. (All Arabs grow up watching Egyptian films, so that helps.) But at the end, this is a movie seeking to achieve present-day authenticity about Egypt, but it is not an Egyptian film.

For those aware of all this it is fascinating, but can be distracting. Nonetheless Saleh tells a good story. All the actors are good. There are some minor turns that are delicious, but in the foreground are the young, innocent Qur'anic scholar, son of a Nile Delta fisherman from Manzala, Adam Tahar (the world-weary, forever put-upon Tawfeek Barhom, of the 2015 The Idol), and the jaded government security operative, Colonel Ibrahim (Fares Fares, who played the very different-looking inspector in Saleh's previous film), who corrupts Adam by manipulating him. But there are other marvelous actors who play the main Al Azhar imam-teachers, the chief candidates to be the new grand imam. They sit or stand in the Al Azhar mosque courtyard with their "halaqa" of student-acolytes squatting around them, and each one gets to give a brief speech showing their very different world-views. When did religious philosophy get so prominently placed in an action film? It's thrilling and cool.

So is the way we think back and realize that everything was manipulated from the moment that Adam learns from his local imam that he's been awarded a scholarship to the ancient place of Muslim learning. And the way though there is not much violence, and that at arm's length, yet there is a sense of constant danger. Saleh reinhabits dozens of classics here about young innocents who slip, in spite of themselves, into sophistication, danger, and power.

Reviews have branded the plot as routine, following a "familiar template," but what is the art of narrative but telling old tales in new ways? We have seen plenty of intrigues, but we have never seen young men sitting around in circles in the courtyard of Al Azhar as the center of an intense government-planned coup.

Maybe Tarik Saleh loves genre too much (not that he denies that; he warmly affirms it in interviews). But there is no other way he could have told this story. Maybe this is, technically, not an Egyptian film: but it's the most Egyptian film the international audience may ever see. He may be too ingenious a constructor of plots. (Surprisingly, he has direct family connections with this one, with Manzala and with Al Azhar.) But this is what he does.

Now. He first appeared in the 1980's as one of the most known graffiti artists of Stockholm. He made a number of documentaries, then turned to features in 2009, 2014 (the Chris Pine-featured English language film The Contractor) and 2017 (The Nile Hilton Hotel incident).

Cairo Conspiracy/ ولد من الجنة (walad min al-jinna, "Boy from Heaven"), 126 mins., in Arabic, debuted at Cannes in Competition, winning the Best Screenplay award (Prix du scénario); over thirty other international festivals including Melbourne, Zurich, London, Busan, Stockholm, Oslo, MIll Valley, and MoMA the Contenders; US theatrical release Dec. 2, 2022. Available on multiple platforms. Watched on Amazon Prime Nov. 26, 2023. Metacritic rating: 72%. French theatrical release Oct. 26, 2022 (AlloCiné press rating 3.8 - 76%).

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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