The Movie Waffler New to VOD - CAIRO CONSPIRACY | The Movie Waffler


A student becomes embroiled in a political conspiracy following a murder at his university.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Tarik Saleh

Starring: Tawfeek Barhom, Fares Fares, Mehdi Debhi, Mohammad Bakri, Ramzi Choukair

Cairo Conspiracy poster

Developing his syntactic approach for the evaluation of artistic content as "an iridescent exchange carried on by multiple voices, on different wavelengths," Roland Barthes identified five semiotic elements (bear with me) which the French essayist argued were inherent to all texts: codes which constructed the fundamental narrative structure of the story. One such component was the proairetic code, which referred to action within the plot, principally causal sequencing. For example, in the specific moment, if someone knocks a door in a movie scene (the code) then the door can either be answered or the knock ignored: either way, one action has led to another. In the overview, the proairetic code defines the falling domino progression which creates A to B plot structure and subsequent narrative satisfaction. Originally coined as a part of a wider campaign to dismantle the myths of mass culture, Barthes' five codes nonetheless serve as a handy primer to the nuts and bolts of storytelling. The problem, however, with Barthes (and the rest of the Gauloise toting French lads, like Baudrillard) is that by exclusive focus on the mechanics of narrative, the structuralist approach forgoes how audiences create subjective meaning from art, and the enduring emotional resonance of story. It isn't just the ingredients, but how you use them, too.

Cairo Conspiracy review

Case in point is Cairo Conspiracy, writer/director Tarik Saleh's low key political thriller. The premise certainly intrigues: Adam (Tawfeek Barhom), the humble son of a fisherman, is offered a place at the prestigious Al-Alzhar university which, the opening intertitle informs us, was created in 972 AD as the "centre of Islamic learning." However, "over centuries" the crawl continues, certain "rulers of Egypt have tried to control" the school. Coinciding with the start of term at Al-Alzhar, the institution's Great Imam is dying, and the government deign to select the school's next head, who will preferably be in their pocket. Cue poor Adam, freshly escaped from being group punished for his brother smoking by his nutcase piscator dad cracking a belt across his palm, being used as what can only be described as a pawn between two conniving factions who crave dominance over Al-Alzhar for reasons. That's not to be glib: the brutal punishment of Adam and his two brothers is pointedly prolonged, filmed in unflinching medium compositions which focus Deliverance style on the pain of the recipients, the better to establish Cairo Conspiracy's abiding themes of accepted patriarchal dominance, and the violent means of enforcing it.

Cairo Conspiracy review

It's a shame, then, that Cairo Conspiracy doesn't go on to match the evocative imagery and arresting pace of its opening. Instead, what is proffered is a by numbers exemplification of the proairetic principle, as Adam is manipulated by chiefly his handler Colonel Ibrahim (Fares Fares), who blackmails him into service by threatening his family, and the concurrent ramifications of the school's resistance to interference. The film simply moves along from one moment to the next, shorn of suspense or dramatic effect. Adam's roommate is unceremoniously bumped off more or less in front of him, murdered to death via a shove off a tall building, and neither Adam nor anyone else is all that arsed. The death simply performs as a transfer to subsequent proceedings, viz. Adam being fingered for the next "mole."

Cairo Conspiracy review

The performances are fine. Fares does imbue Ibrahim's go-between with his residual charisma, but it is difficult to engage with the compromised Adam, since, really, he is simply shifted by the demands of the plot, barely reacting either way. Such is Cairo Conspiracy's fealty to functional storytelling shorn of emotive resonance and audience-positioning suspense that I began to wonder if the film was a representation of actual events, due to the steadfastly sober recount which seemed to consciously avoid the sort of intriguing storytelling that could lead to accusations of sensationalism. It isn't, although Cairo Conspiracy was considered such a hot potato by the Egyptian authorities that it has been banned (although set in Cairo, the film wasn't made there, with a flatly depicted Istanbul standing in for the city). I can't see the fuss myself. Cairo Conspiracy works as a narrative, but it doesn't affect as one.

Cairo Conspiracy is on UK/ROI VOD now.

2023 movie reviews