Cairo Conspiracy [Walad min al-Janna] [Boy from Heaven]

Tarik Saleh
Release Year:
Length (mins):
Sweden, France, Finland, Denmark
Screening Date:
  • 9 Jan 2024
  • Categories:
    Drama, Mystery, Thriller

    A fisherman’s son is awarded a scholarship to a prestigious university, only to be recruited as a government informant. He soon becomes a pawn in the power struggle between Egypt's religious and political elites. Best Screenplay Cannes 2022.

    Film Notes

    ‘Cairo Conspiracy’: A web of lies, spun in a world much like our own.

    Sweden’s official Oscar submission (and Cannes screenplay winner) is a political thriller set at a prestigious Islamic university.

    Sweden’s official Oscar submission in the foreign language category, “Cairo Conspiracy” did not end up with a nomination, but it was up for the Palme d’Or at Cannes this past spring. It didn’t win, though its writer-director, Tarik Saleh, a former Stockholm graffiti artist whose father is Egyptian, took home the festival’s screenwriting prize.

    Set at Cairo’s Al Azhar University — the most prestigious Islamic school in the world, founded in 972 — the story is a wild one: a tense political thriller centering on Adam (Tawfeek Barhom), a naive freshman from the sticks who gets recruited as a mole by Col. Ibrahim (Fares Fares), an officer from the state security agency, to manipulate the election of the school’s grand imam, one of the most powerful positions in Sunni Islam. The goal: to finagle things, by whatever means necessary, so that the government’s preferred candidate is chosen over another cleric being groomed by the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that some have called a terrorist organization.

    It is an engrossing tale, full of betrayal and chicanery, and it casts the Egyptian political-military complex and the religious hierarchy as riddled with corruption. And yet when asked, in an interview contained in the film’s press material, whether the film was a critique of Islam or the political regime in Egypt, Salah said simply, “No, it’s a made-up story.”

    Yes, yes, just like most movies. Saleh’s answer smacks of disingenuousness because “Cairo Conspiracy” paints such a bleak picture of power. (The characters are all fictional, but one scene, set in a government office building, lingers briefly but notably on a portrait of President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi.) Though shot mostly in Turkey, it feels very much situated in a real place, in the real world.

    And that’s its scary strong suit.

    As Adam, Barhom makes for the perfect guide to this festering edifice of ethical rot. His character has barely chosen a bunk before he witnesses the execution of a fellow student (Mehdi Dehbi), Adam’s predecessor in the role of Ibrahim’s spy. Adam’s credulous sense of wonder parallels our own, which makes a moment of treacherousness he succumbs to early in the film — at the behest of Ibrahim, in order to ingratiate himself with the leader (Sherwan Haji) of some radical students — all the more shocking.

    Throughout the film, which places the protagonist in ever-increasing danger, Adam is referred to as Ibrahim’s “angel,” yet the film seems otherwise stocked with devils in almost every corner. At one point, Adam’s only friend (Ahmed Laissaoui) asks, after he has been double-crossed by Adam, “What have you gotten into?”

    It is an excellent question, in a narrative that — whether offering a critique of the real world or not — finds much to interrogate and, yes, critique about human nature. In the end, precious little of it holds out hope for our species. 

    Review by , Washington Post, February 7, 2023

    Cairo Conspiracy (aka Boy from Heaven) review – stirring spy thriller set on an Egyptian campus.

    Egypt’s religious and secular institutions both breed mistrust in Tarik Saleh’s superbly realised paranoid nightmare.

    Tarik Saleh is the Swedish-Egyptian director who made The Nile Hilton Incident in 2017, a shrewd, dyspeptic movie about the official corruption in Egypt that triggered the Tahrir Square uprising. Now in an era when the Arab spring has arguably become a bittersweet memory, he has brought to the Cannes competition this watchable conspiracy espionage-drama satirising the corruption of church and state. There’s an intriguing mix of scorn and paranoia here, together with a yearning for individual figures of decency halfway down the food chain – it reminded me of John le Carré.

    Adam (Tawfeek Barhom) is a fisherman’s son in the northern town of Manzala who is overjoyed to receive news from his local imam that he is getting a lavish state sponsorship to study Islamic thought at Cairo’s internationally prestigious Al-Azhar University. This is a dizzying honour. Once at the university, he is overawed by the discipline, the rigour and the atmosphere of piety but disconcerted also when a fellow student offers him a cigarette – of all the louche things – and invites him out for a secular night on the town. Their seat of learning is stunned when its ageing chief imam drops dead of a heart attack while addressing the student body, and straight away there is political jockeying from the other imams as to who is take over a position of enormous political influence.

    Adam’s own bewilderment and distress is compounded when he witnesses his new student pal being murdered by masked assailants, and soon he is contacted by a dishevelled and cynical intelligence agent, Colonel Ibrahim (played by Fares Fares, the cop in The Nile Hilton Incident) who makes something horribly clear. Adam’s dead pal was an informant being “run” by the state security apparatus, covertly reporting back to the government on the imams’ subversive political views.

    This dead young man, like Adam himself, was the recipient of a state scholarship given to obedient provincials who will take orders from their real masters. Now Adam must work as a spy to ensure that the government’s favoured candidate gets the top job and if things go wrong there is no guarantee Adam won’t wind up like his friend. Saleh creates very tense scenes in which Adam has to further infiltrate various cliques and in-crowds at the university, get their trust and assuage their suspicions by conniving in violent acts against their enemies – and all this in a seat of religious learning.

    It’s a movie that is boldly anti-clerical, juxtaposing the spectacle of faith with a hidden reality of corruption and hypocrisy – although in the final act I sensed that it perhaps did not quite have the courage of its satirical convictions. The religious authorities in Egypt may be mollified by this film’s final implication that the secular state is marginally more institutionally corrupt than the religious establishment. It’s a bold piece of work nonetheless.

    , The Guardian, 20th May 2022.

    What you thought about Cairo Conspiracy [Walad min al-Janna] [Boy from Heaven]

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    31 (50%) 26 (42%) 4 (6%) 1 (2%) 0 (0%)
    Total Number of Responses: 62
    Film Score (0-5): 4.40

    Collated Response Comments

    125 members and guests attended the screening of Cairo Conspiracy. We received a total of 62 responses producing a score of 4.40. This is a response rate of 50%.

    Thank you so much for responding to the film in such high numbers and with such insightful comments, all of which are produced below.

    Thought the script struck the balance of the austere atmosphere of Egypt's most significant mosque and the corruption of a state, with a spy thrown in; yet not a stereotypical secret agent. Adam is meek, quietly spoken innocent from a little fishing village whose eyes look groundward. But his fearless behaviour, devotion to Islam and a quiet toughness seem to make him a good spy for the state. He becomes an 'angel' (like a mole) who's tempted by the possibility of sheikhdom as well. He's shown as struggling with the conflict between what he believes in and what he pushed into doing. The characterisation of Ibrahim, (shambolic, leather jacketed cool) of State Security is as unlikely as Adam as a spy. A state that wants to rig a religious election is an interesting concept(!) and the narrative unfolds when Adam's friend is murdered. Film pacing remains steady and the interweaving commentary on theology, religion, and positions of power is quite gripping. Saleh's subtle script - Marxist quotes and Quran scripture spoken quietly – doesn't take a religious or philosophical position, but shows Adam's impossible situation in the face of opposing 'rightness’. Cinematography of the grand edifice of the university and the visual splendour of the mosque add to the complexity of the film that was sometimes hard to follow. Enjoyed the range of characters, all flawed. Thanks for showing this”.

    Some strong acting performances, but otherwise a rather conventional, steadily-paced thriller, albeit set against the interesting backdrop of tension between the Egyptian state and Islamic religion”.

    “Educational and entertaining”.

    “Best film so far this season. Great acting and a tight plot. Fascinating glimpse into the world of Islam”.

    “I sadly don't have much knowledge of Islamic culture (and forgive my ignorance), but I felt that the fundamental human story and the timeless universal themes resonated with me deeply. Adam's strong faith, intuition, sincerity, purity, determination, and love for his family protected his life no matter what, and through that, I found the film to be educational. (I don't understand why the title had to be changed, though...) Thank you. / I cannot believe that 'Marcel the Shell With Shoes On' was so unpopular. I loved it. Sorry I didn't manage to leave any responses.... “.

    “Probably not a film I would have chosen to watch but thought it was a very good choice and it held me gripped all the way through. Fascinating and disturbing interaction between politics and religion. When the Imam at his home mosque asked him what he had learned I thought he might reply "not to trust anyone"!”

    “The last half hour was gripping drama but I found little before that to keep me engaged. The lack of expression on the main character's face may have been what the director wanted for this humble son of a fisherman but I found it strange”.

    “Challenging at times as I found it difficult to follow all the threads of the different groups but completely absorbing keeping the tension at a high level throughout. Excellent acting”.

    “A gripping tale with twists and turns to the end. Well-acted. Some lovely shots. Thought provoking. Best this season”.

    “Shocking portrayal of living in such a State. Thank goodness that in the UK, "moral luck" means we don't have to make such decisions or be manipulated into acting as pawns. Hadn't expected such a welcome gentle outcome!”

    “The power of education”.

    “Last night’s film was thought provoking.  Interesting what a hold religion has over people and yet you can still be so corrupt.  I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the film but it gave me a lot to think about.  An excellent tale of corruption and power that kept me in suspense all the way through. The ending quote of the movie “Power is a double-edged sword. Sometimes it cuts the hand that wields it,” perfectly sums up the message of this film. It is a lesson in how far people will go to reach the top and the ease in which they will throw morals and good decency to the side to achieve their aims. The film explores the themes of fear and respect and how powerful the carrot and the stick are in pushing good people to do bad things and things outside of their nature.  I was unsure about the intentions of the director during the scene where the main protagonist sneaks out to go clubbing with his new found friend. For a few minutes the nature of his dancing and facial expressions between the friend and main character seemed to be suggesting their could be some physical attraction between the two men. I am very glad that this film did not fall for the trap of being trendy and introducing an LGBT subplot as I really would have been disappointed had the film gone down the woke agenda of having a gay story line between students of the most prestigious religious school as a backdrop. It didn't need to do that. It had more than enough intrigue to begin with. I also appreciated how the film exposed the top sheikhs at the school as having flaws. No one is perfect, even those who dedicate their lives to religion, these people still had secrets and a past. All in all, I found the movie very realistic and a great reflection of the dark side of large institutions and governments. Corruption is everywhere and we sometimes kid ourselves that we are less brutal and open to corruption in the west”.

    “Excellent but I need to see it again as it is complicated. Great young actor”.

    “One of the best films I have seen at GFS. May need a second view! Great cinematographic moment when out of focus shot by actor putting his glasses on!”

    “Excellent acting an engrossing film – many twists and turns!”

    “Best film of the season”.

    “I was deeply moved by the truth in this film – moral, horrified, dismayed. Religion is all about power, power is corrupting. What an amazing film. It left me overwhelmed with sadness”.

    “Very powerful and though provoking. I’m so glad to have seen it!”

    “Poignant question. What have you learnt?

    “Slow- but grew on me”.

    “A fascinating film. Cinematography was superb”.

    “A very interesting insight into ISLAM and the usual politics of power”.

    “A very powerful film. Gripping”.


    “Very well made & acted. A very chilling insight into the corruption within that country whilst professing to be good islams”.

    “I found this quite tense! An insight into a religious world I knew little about”.

    “Powerful, tense, depressing picture of closed morals and corruption”.

    “Captivating and depressing at times”.

    “It filled me with fear of a world ruled by men”.

    “Very interesting – a touch long but fine acting all round”.

    “Utterly boring. 99% men 1% lady actresses”.



    We have placed cookies on your computer to help make this website better. For more information please click here

    By continuing to use this site or closing this panel, we'll assume you're OK to continue. You can view our full privacy policy here