CANNES FESTIVAL: caught between Egypt’s state apparatus and al-Azhar’s leadership, “BOY FROM HEAVEN”

CANNES, France — Adam (Tawfeek Barhom) is accepted to Al-Azhar University, one of the leading centers of study of Sunni Islam, located in Cairo. He leaves his native fishing village where where he helps his father on the boat.

The school year begins and shortly thereafter the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar suddenly dies; Adam, finding himself involved in a shadowy negotiation around his replacement, is confronted by the university’s senior council of scholars and government agents, everyone jockeying for position.

The Egyptian state, led by abd-el Fattah al-Sisi, let it be known that they want someone loyal to Sisi to be installed in his place. An agent from the security apparatus is assigned to manage the succession (and they do so, pretty much by any means necessary) and regular meetings are organized with Adam to gather intelligence.

“Boy” quickly becomes about secret meetings, sollicitations and threats.

As Adam soon finds out after his arrival, academic knowledge will have little influence on the events in which he gets entangled: to be stealthy, discreet and observant, as in, observing the state of things around you observant: better return on investment.

Swedish filmmaker Tarik Saleh is in competition at Cannes for the first time. In “Boy from Heaven” he sets his relativist thriller in a Mosque, among students of the Koran, students who, for many, will become Imams (preachers) and return to their provinces to become leaders in their communities.

“Boy” was shot in Turkey, a place that’s decidedly more Western-oriented than Egypt, even though Egypt is a friendly and welcoming country.

Are there universal truths, truths that everyone can agree on? Capital punishment is bad, being pro-choice is good, a religious center should be apolitical and beyond reproach? Evidently, the age we live in requires us to become adept at relativism. But it was probably always this way.

Besides the pleasure of watching “Boy from Heaven” one also learns, not without some blunt cynicism, relief, that Islam, yes, is a political religion whose elders are plugged in to the highest reaches of powers in the Middle East.

In an interview with French media Saleh said, “I believe that state security has legitimate reasons for being worried, their methods I don’t agree with but I understand their concerns. They [state security] know that some people want to turn Egypt into a caliphate. Egyptians don’t want that. This film is about authority. And in a country where God is the ultimate authority, the question is, whose side is God on?”

“Boy from Heaven,” an edgy and lyrical thriller set in a visually-impressive setting, is a recommend.

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