Rotten Tomatoes (3.5/5), Metacritic (7/10), Letterboxd (3.5/5), Imdb.com (7/10)
When the elderly Grand Imam of Cairo’s prestigious Al-Azhar University passes away suddenly, a scramble ensues over the appointment of his replacement, one that involves the maneuverings of various vested interests from religious fundamentalists to political pragmatists to devoutly spiritual purists. But who will ultimately take over? That depends on the efforts of a young new student who becomes caught up in this power struggle, the pious son of a fisherman who’s unwittingly recruited as a state security informant to infiltrate a group of academic ideological extremists. This slowburn thriller (sometimes a little too slow for its own good, especially in the middle) draws on this scenario to examine the diverse dynamics of Egyptian politics and religion, especially the often-tenuous relationship between the two, as played out through the internal (though publicly high-profile) workings of this long-established, well-respected educational institution. Writer-director Tarek Saleh’s latest is a finely acted, capably made production (a noteworthy accomplishment given that the controversial filmmaker’s work had to be shot outside of Egypt), though it occasionally lacks the gripping tension needed to give the picture’s narrative the kind of dramatic heft that an offering like this requires, especially considering the high stakes involved in this story. While this Cannes Film Festival award winner for best screenplay is a work of fiction and said to poignantly reflect the prevailing conditions found in these institutions, the script, pacing and overall tone could have stood to be less subtle and more pointedly compelling. Indeed, “Cairo Conspiracy” is a suitably attention-holding watch with a solid underlying premise, but it would have been better if it had been a little less conventional and wielded a more pronounced edge.