Review: Boy from Heaven
by Jan Lumholdt
- CANNES 2022: There’s wall-to-wall intrigue and conspiracy within the confines of Cairo's Al-Azhar University, in Tarik Saleh’s new outing
After a Sundance win and an international breakthrough with his Cairo-set thriller The Nile Hilton Incident [+see also:
interview: Tarik Saleh
film profile], Swedish director Tarik Saleh was also forced to wince as the film got banned from Egyptian screens, as it was considered “unflattering” in its portrayal of the national police force. Hardly one to curtail his visions, Saleh now returns to the country of his paternal roots with Boy from Heaven [+see also:
interview: Tarik Saleh
film profile], playing in the 75th Cannes International Film Festival’s competition section. This dense tale of ugly intrigue takes place behind the walls of Cairo's Al-Azhar Mosque and University, the haven of the Sunni Islam world, and its absolute power centre.
Awe-inspiring, distinguished and intimidating are expressions that together might begin to describe the sheer massiveness of Al-Azhar. The full impression is seen through the eyes of young Adam, from a little fishing village, who gets a scholarship against all odds. The look on his face on his day of arrival is the same as ours, and once let inside the walls of this colossal complex of knowledge, with roots dating back to the 10th century, a whole universe unfurls, perfected for a purpose implemented over 1,000 years ago.
For almost as long, religious and secular forces in Egypt have engaged in a power struggle, in recent times fuelled by the Arab Spring of the early 2010s, which played a crucial part in The Nile Hilton Incident. In Boy from Heaven, Adam gets caught in the very eye of such a storm, as the Grand Iman, ranking up there with the Pope, suddenly dies and a successor needs to be appointed. While such a mandate lies firmly with the conclave-like Supreme Council of Scholars, the highly secular State Security institution is eager to get a nice, thick slice of the action as well. With the latter on the outside of those compact walls, a student is picked out for undercover work, registering and reporting on any noteworthy activity. Referred to as “angels”, they’re basically what a John le Carré spy story would call “moles”.
That same le Carré is an apt comparison here, in the sense of it being a tight and complex thriller with some complexities getting quite overwhelming – at times, one might feel as befuddled as Adam in his new “angel” assignment. There’s wall-to-wall conspiracy between the different cadres and candidates, from jihadi extremists to two-faced players, hiding illicit offspring in the closet, and even a decent guy whose blindness may explain his inculpability. Faces and performances are intriguing down to the smallest parts, with highlights provided by Tawfeek Barhom as Adam and the ever-watchable Fares Fares (who these days feels to Saleh like Scorsese’s De Niro or Kurosawa’s Mifune) in a first-rate turn as the weathered and not entirely corrupt Colonel Ibrahim, of State Security, showing Adam all the dirty ropes. The visual splendour of the mosque (in reality Süleymanye in Istanbul, with some scenes actually shot in… Sweden) alone should warrant a look – or even two, if everything wasn’t taken in on first viewing.
Boy from Heaven is a Swedish-French-Finnish-Danish-Moroccan production staged by Atmo, Memento Production, Oy Bufo Ab, Final Cut for Real, ARTE France Cinéma and Kasbah Film. Memento International is taking care of its international sales.
Photogallery 21/05/2022: Cannes 2022 - Boy from Heaven
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