'Boy from Heaven' tells a fascinating story of corruption in Cairo

While Boy from Heaven has been shown around the world, it’s not likely to be screened in Egypt any time soon.

 ‘BOY FROM HEAVEN’: a portrait of corruption.  (photo credit: MEMENTO)
‘BOY FROM HEAVEN’: a portrait of corruption.
(photo credit: MEMENTO)

Tarik Saleh’s Boy from Heaven (also billed as Cairo Conspiracy), which opens throughout Israel on May 25 (with English and Hebrew titles), was inspired by The Name of the Rose and shines a light on political corruption and intrigue in Egypt’s prestigious Islamic university, Al-Azhar. Confidently and intelligently directed, it’s a riveting drama from start to finish, and visually breathtaking. 

Saleh, a Swedish-Egyptian filmmaker, has made a movie about how the Egyptian authorities, led by a general (Mohammad Bakri), scheme to place an imam who is friendly to the regime as the spiritual leader of Al-Azhar after the previous one dies. 

The story is told through the eyes of Adam (Tawfeek Barhom), a brilliant young student from a simple family of fishermen in the provinces, who gets a scholarship to the prestigious university. After he witnesses the murder of a student who was working as a government informant, he is pressured by government investigator, Colonel Ibrahim (Fares Fares), to take the informant’s place. 

Soon, Adam is pretending to join a cell of radical Islamists, while Ibrahim pays for his father’s much-needed surgery. Adam finds himself at the center of conspiracies that he struggles to understand. Very soon, there is no way out for Adam, as he realizes that his life is at stake. 

While Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is the obvious inspiration for the film, it also brings to mind the quote from Sir Walter Scott, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive.” The behind-the-scenes story of the inner workings of both Egypt’s security service and the Islamic university are absorbing, even if you don’t follow Egyptian politics. 

 ‘BOY FROM HEAVEN’: a portrait of corruption.  (credit: MEMENTO) ‘BOY FROM HEAVEN’: a portrait of corruption. (credit: MEMENTO)

Government seeks control through religious means

The film details how the government seeks to control the population through religion, by trying to ensure that the spiritual head of this university is willing to work with the secular, corrupt authorities, and how far they are willing to go to achieve this. There is no facet of university life that Ibrahim is not willing to pry into, including seemingly inconsequential Koran recitation contests. 

The movie, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, deservedly won the Best Screenplay Award. It has thematic similarities with Yuval Adler’s film, Bethlehem, about the relationship between a Shin Bet agent and his young asset, as well as the 1985 Peruvian film, The City and the Dogs by Francisco J. Lombardi, based on the novel by Mario Vargas Llosa about corruption at a military academy. 

But the story is all the more unsettling because Adam is a true believer, who finds that religion gives him the fortitude to survive the physically punishing fisherman’s life with his brutal father, and that reading and studying as much as he can keeps his mind sharp. 

When he is accepted to the university and receives his father’s permission to go, he is ecstatic, and we see Cairo through his eyes, as an enchanted place, almost like Oxford in Brideshead Revisited. He is eager to learn and to prove himself there, among the best students from around the world. 

When his new friend there is killed and he finds himself roped into the colonel’s schemes, his disillusionment takes on tragic and universal dimensions, like a Shakespearean drama. 

Barhom, who gave a memorable performance in 2014 in Eran Riklis’s A Borrowed Identity, has grown as an actor since then and gives a brilliant, low-key performance in the lead role. 

Fares, a Lebanese-born Swedish actor who has appeared in such films as Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune and the television series, Westworld, manages to bring both a sense of humor and tension to his role, so that at times, he seems as evil as the rest of the government operatives, while at other moments, you see him as a cog in a machine and sympathize with him. Acclaimed film and stage actor, Makram Khoury, has a memorable supporting role as a blind sheikh. 

While Boy from Heaven has been shown around the world, it’s not likely to be screened in Egypt any time soon. Saleh, who was born in Sweden to an Egyptian father and a Swedish mother, became persona non grata in Egypt when he was working on a previous film, The Nile Hilton Incident, a murder mystery set against a backdrop of corruption. Boy from Heaven was filmed in Turkey and few of the actors are Egyptian. 

Saleh is a born storyteller and the cinematography and soundtrack combine with the screenplay and formidable acting to make Boy from Heaven into a fascinating drama. He has said in interviews that he made the movie to tell the story to himself, but it is a universal and heartbreaking drama that will speak to audiences everywhere.