The election of a grand imam is the backdrop for this tense drama of innocence and corruption set at an esteemed Islamic university.
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By Glenn Kenny
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“Cairo Conspiracy” was Sweden’s entry in this year’s Academy Awards race for best international feature, but it does not have a single word of Swedish in it, nor is it set anywhere near the Nordic country. The film (which did not receive an Oscar nomination) is a European coproduction written and directed by Tarik Saleh, a Swedish director whose father is Egyptian. It was shot largely in Turkey. And like Saleh’s 2017 film “The Nile Hilton Incident,” it takes aim at corruption in the title city.
Adam (Tawfeek Barhom), a young man from a remote Egyptian province, receives the glad news that he’s won a scholarship to Al-Azhar University, an eminent, Islamic institution in Cairo. As Adam gets accustomed to campus life, the movie introduces another character, Colonel Ibrahim (Fares Fares). He’s tasked by a military committee with fixing the election for the university’s new grand imam. The ideal cleric’s interests should, naturally, align with the state’s.
Ibrahim is a shaggy fellow, but he’s hardly avuncular. He uses students as informants. When his current pigeon, Zizo (Mehdi Dehbi), is exposed, Ibrahim tells him to find a “new angel.” Zizo tags Adam. He takes the freshman clubbing, and shares a forbidden smoke with him, telling him: “Your soul is still pure. But every second in this place will corrupt it.” Soon, Zizo is dead and Adam is betraying his fellow students and helping Ibrahim blackmail his teachers. In this cutthroat environment, Adam looks more and more like a lamb headed to slaughter.
“Cairo Conspiracy” is a measured but unsparing portrait of corruption perpetrated by people who, across the board, are utterly confident of their own rectitude. Its denouement offers some mercy, but zero hope that the rot depicted can be corrected.
Not rated. In Arabic, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 6 minutes. In theaters.
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