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‘Boy from Heaven’ Review: Egyptian Political Thriller Gives Conventional Treatment to a Curious Subject

Cannes: Swedish-Egyptian director Tarik Saleh directs this character study of a young Muslim man who ends up in hell and keeps going.

Boy from Heaven

“Boy from Heaven”

Cannes Film Festival

Sometimes, the worst thing that can happen to a humble person is a sudden elevation to the realm of the elite. Like Charlie Bucket finding a golden ticket, in “Boy from Heaven,” Adam (Tawfeek Barhom) initially cannot believe his good fortune when he receives an acceptance letter to Al-Azhar, a Cairo university that functions as the height of Sunni Islamic power. Adam is an exceptionally bright young man from a small fishing village, living under the thumb of his god-fearing, corporal-punishment-administering father. After his village imam hands over the acceptance letter, he is entranced. At night, in the room he shares with two brothers, he reads it again, illuminating the thick cream paper by a phone light held under the bedclothes.

Barhom starts out excellently as the watchful Adam, a careful young man whose arc involves being shoved into a moral quagmire with no protections. “Your soul is still pure. But this place will corrupt it,” says fellow student, Zizo (Mehdi Dehbi), who shortly afterward is found murdered in the school courtyard. Zizo is the second early death, for the grand imam succumbs to illness shortly after Adam’s arrival. Grand imams hold their position for a lifetime, so the matter of who exactly is elected to fill his shoes is a matter of vital political importance to the ruthless powerbrokers behind the scenes.

Muscular camerawork illustrates the central location of Al-Azhar with an ominous sense of grandeur. Life is orderly and the surroundings magnificent. From the tower where Cairo spreads out as a thousand twinkling lights, to the courtyard, often photographed from an aerial view where white and red prayer caps form a symmetrical pattern, everything looks too perfect. And, as is often the case in cinema as in life, perfection masks rot.

Swedish-Egyptian director Tarik Saleh does his strongest work within the first half an hour, charting Adam’s path from rowing a fishing boat in Manzala with his father to dancing in downtown Cairo where strobe lights flash and young holy men cut loose like anyone else. His culture shock and excitement are felt as Barhom reacts with wide-eyed awe to contrasting locations. As the film progresses and knotty political machinations become the focus, exposition takes over the atmosphere. Before that happens, “Boy From Heaven” is as wide open as Adam’s future.

After Zizo’s death, a state security representative named Colonel Ibrahim (Fares Fares) shows up in the hallowed halls of Al-Azhar, purportedly to find the killer and bring them to justice. His true motive is to enlist Adam as an informant – ‘an angel’, as he would put it – to help with the assignment of electing a grand imam who will operate as a state puppet. The current favorite to be elected by the university’s council is not their stooge, and so Adam has his work cut out for him. Saleh, who also wrote the script, shows a lack of interest in the psychology of an honest man capitulating to the demands of power. Barhom is left to look various degrees sad and shifty while Adam betrays his peers with comparative ease.

As the conspiracy elements of the story kick into gear, so the expansive atmosphere of the opening shrinks down to the mechanical concerns of a rote thriller — albeit one set within a specific, highly regimented religious location that is underseen within the Cannes competition and Western cinema at large. There are incognito meetings in coffee shops, the infiltration of a pro-jihadist circle and framing of a fellow student. Adam is shown as preternaturally gifted in his new role as a mole. Yet, once again, the script takes no interest in how the development of these survival skills might cause him to feel a cocktail of emotions. Barhom keeps on channeling a subdued form of fear meaning that, despite his own skills, his screen presence becomes monotonous.

Ibrahim is shown as having his own issues with the higher-ups in the form of his relationship to the younger and more successful Sobhy (Moe Ayoub). Sobhy makes Ibrahim seem like a pussy cat, such is his casual disregard for human life. Fares plays Ibrahim as a man who does what he does simply to get the job done and save his own skin (who knows, maybe he was once forced into this life, like Adam). Sobhy actively enjoys making life or death decisions, usually coming out in favor of death.

The film proficiently illustrates that everyone embroiled in corrupt state activities is a cog in a machine with no recourse to free will, only to survival. Saleh takes aim at power and politics, without denegrating Islam. Indeed, there is a rigorous and dignified representation of religious practices that acts as a counterpoint to the ill deeds going down. “Boy From Heaven” wants to offer up a character study of a young Muslim man who ends up in hell and keeps going. Sadly, a deep and meaningful portrait of Adam is forgotten as the film — like the state officials it depicts — prioritizes functionality above all else.

Grade: B

“Boy from Heaven” premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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