A spy thriller about a curious subject — the power struggle to replace the Grand Imam of al-Azhar — Tarik Saleh’s Boy from Heaven is set at Al-Azhar University, the second oldest university in the world and the most renowned center for Islamic learning. Adam, the devout, studious son of a fisherman, accepts at the film’s outset a scholarship to the school to further his studies, with no idea of what he’ll be wrapped up in when he gets there. Not long after his arrival, the Grand Imam is dead, and operatives of the state meet to discuss the election of his successor, wishing to control the variables so that an Imam with the same values as the president will be chosen. And so, Boy from Heaven immediately marks itself as interested in the collapse of the space between church and state, the area in which religious morality and government interest collide. It’s a wonderfully intriguing set-up, one that makes for a thriller in which allegations of sin carry as much weight as a bullet, but the stuffy genre clothes the film comes dressed in keep it from being as textually rich as it could have been and, what’s more, Saleh never manages to fashion the conventional proceedings into anything truly gripping.
An undercover State agent befriends Adam on orders to find his own replacement before he is killed. When he meets a brutal end, his handler, Colonel Ibrahim (Fares Fares), approaches Adam to bring him into the fold and asks him to spy on students at dawn prayer, a solution to his father’s health problems dangled like a carrot in front of a horse. From there, he infiltrates a group of radicals and begins a journey deeper and deeper undercover, forced to work for political ends he likely has no interest in, though the character is largely ill-defined, his motivations and beliefs sometimes hard to parse. Though all the pieces for satisfying intrigue are present throughout, the largely linear A-to-B progression of the plot denies the pleasure of a truly labyrinthine espionage movie, and as we watch Adam move into new positions, each seems like a foregone conclusion. It’s not quite predictable, but it is surprisingly simple, and it can be hard to connect with Adam’s own confusion without being totally thrust into the thick of it as well.
Boy from Heaven is at its best when its generic and theological concerns work in harmony, like in one of the film’s most memorable scenes in which Adam must decide whether to betray a friend in order to earn the trust of an enemy during a recitation competition where religious debate over the appropriate methods of reciting the Quran threatens to boil over. But the conventional, unexceptional methods of filmmaking here so under-serve all of the film’s thorniest elements. More often than not, the Boy from Heaven’s setting and the backdrop of religious discourse feel like nothing more than a pretense of quality for this otherwise uninspired thriller.
Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 5.