Using familiar genre tropes to tackle provocative themes, this shot-in-Istanbul, Cairo-set Cannes Best Screenplay winner asks hard questions about the troubling intersections between political and religious institutions.
Cast: Tawfeek Barhom, Fares Fares, Yunus Albayrak
Plot: Adam, the son of a fisherman, is offered the ultimate privilege to study at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the epicenter of power of Sunni Islam. Shortly after his arrival in Cairo, the university’s highest ranking religious leader, the Grand Imam, suddenly dies and Adam soon becomes a pawn in a ruthless power struggle between Eqypt’s religious and political elite.
Awards: Won Best Screenplay & Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes)
International Sales: Memento Films (SG: Anticipate Pictures)
Subject Matter: Moderate – Politics and Religion; Power Struggle
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Quite a number of reviews have been harsh on this. Winner of Best Screenplay at Cannes, Boy from Heaven is an excellent dramatisation of the nasty power plays that could conceivably happen at the very top ranks of political and religious institutions.
Shot in Istanbul instead of Cairo where the story is set due to its provocative subject matter, Tarik Saleh’s work asks hard questions about where the assumed purity of religion ends and the grime of dirty politics begins.
The grand imam of Al-Azhar University suddenly collapses and dies, leaving a power vacuum. The military state wants in, scheming in secret, but the religious factions are wary of such an incursion; at the same time, an Islamic extremist group operating on campus grounds lies waiting to pounce.
In the middle of all this is Adam, a naïve new student from a seaside town, the ‘boy from heaven’ who would be made to go through hell.
“Your soul is still pure, but every second in this place will corrupt it.”
In an exceptional performance as Adam, Tawfeek Barhom channels fear and confusion into a character who unwittingly becomes a pawn in a high-stakes political game.
Some have questioned Saleh’s choice of using familiar genre tropes to tackle the prickly themes, but I think this decision makes the film all the more appealing to a wider audience—and it is interesting, at least to me, to see how these conventional elements (be it plotting or technique) might operate in an Arabic context (though granted this is a European co-production).
Portrayals of power struggles in cinema are not new, but through Boy from Heaven’s procedural-thriller style where life-and-death uncertainty is the name of the game, where the Islamic faith is put through the wringer, and where secularism is under serious threat, we get a compelling and thought-provoking piece of work.