A power struggle begins after the death of the grand imam at a prestigious Cairo university in Tarik Saleh’s conventional drama.
To the extent that it’s even possible for a film about Islamic extremism and corruption within the Muslim faith to play it safe, Tarik Saleh errs on the side of caution in Boy from Heaven, his Competition debut at Cannes.
He approaches the live-wire subjects he’s selected for his first mature project in a minute (he’s been occupied in his post-Egyptian-ban years by English-language TV gigs and the megaflop Chris Pine vehicle The Contractor) with a measured thriller sensibility no one would mistake for cowardice or compromise, though that delicate touch also translates to a more prosaic visual profile from a multi-hyphenate with roots in music videos, graffiti art, and sci-fi freakouts.
The stilled cinematography favouring pensive long takes brings a dignified air to what could’ve been a sordid potboiler plot, rich in intrigue and deception appropriate for a film revolving around what happens behind closed doors. That’s exactly how a private board of elders elects a new Grand Imam, the highest authority in the Sunni sect, at the world-leading al-Azhar University in Cairo. The opacity of the process far from ensures its integrity, however, as the film exposes dirty dealings behind the scenes from competing factions jockeying to up their influence within a powerful public institution.
On one end of an ideological spectrum duly illustrating that Islam is no monolith, there’s Sheikh Durani (Ramzi Choukair), a hardline conservative who may be mentoring a small cell of student terrorists-to-be, not to mention hiding some closet-skeletons casting aspersions on his moral character. On the other, there’s an ageing blind Sheikh (Makram Khoury), the horse backed by shadowy state apparatuses hoping to get a foothold in the insular religious sphere.
The decent if suggestible Adam (Tawfeek Barhom) lands himself in the middle of this vacuum, recruited to be the government’s man on the inside by the Maron-looking intelligence agent Ibrahim (Fares Fares) and sent to ingratiate himself with Durani. He’s pretty terrible at playing mole, almost immediately blowing his cover while trying to blend with the junior jihadists, but Saleh excels more in developing the relationships split between trust and manipulation rather than spinning an airtight narrative.
Much like with Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Sheen in The Departed, another negotiation between the devout and sinful, an inevitable tension percolates between Adam and Ibrahim as the latter tries to wring all the usefulness out of the former. Early on, Adam glimpses the murder of the last kid under Ibrahim’s pressured tutelage; it doesn’t take long for him to catch on that his new handlers would replace him just as quickly.
Regardless, he forges ahead with his hazardous mission out of a genuine concern for the legitimacy and well-being of al-Azhar, an extension of Saleh’s key distinction between religion itself and the way its adherents practice it. He makes the uncontroversial, factual suggestion that Islam has its contingent of hawkish radicals without letting them overtake perception, their bad rep countered by the earnest transcendence visible during a recitation contest among the students photographed in reverent close-ups.
Saleh’s encouraging return to capital-C Cinema plays better as a cool-headed perspective on belief than the moving-picture equivalent of a taut page-turner that it would like to be. And that’s plenty, its lapses in storytelling mechanics ignored easily enough for Barhom and Fares’ flinty-eyed performances. Western media has trained us to brace for the worst in works engaging with the fanatical corners of Islam, and so the ground-level sobriety in Saleh’s treatment lands as a blessing all its own.
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Published 21 May 2022
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