It’s early days at the Cannes Film Festival, so awards prognostication might seem a little premature, but still, it’s hard to imagine that the phenomenal performance given by Swedish-Lebanese actor Fares Fares in Tarik Saleh’s searing political thriller Boy from Heaven will go entirely unnoticed by this year’s jury. Topping the work he did in Saleh’s 2017 Sundance hit The Nile Hilton Incident, Fares commands the screen from the moment he arrives, playing a character whose disheveled appearance conceals a ruthless efficiency, a laser-focused mind and an entirely pragmatic concept of morality.
It’s funny that Boy from Heaven should premiere after James Gray’s Armageddon Time, another film about a young man’s rude awakening and another film that ruminates on the way fate is shaped — or dictated — by race and class. But Saleh’s film throws religion into that already-volatile mix, and while it doesn’t swerve the delicate issues that come with any discussion of radical Islam, Boy from Heaven shows a rare level of philosophical engagement with the subject, something that pays off beautifully in its articulate and nuanced last act.
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The nominal star of the film is Adam (Tawfeek Barhom), the son of a poor Egyptian fisherman who lives with his widowed father and two brothers in a tiny seaside village. Without telling his domineering father, Adam has been studying privately, resulting in the offer of a scholarship to the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo, a power base of Sunni Islam. To Adam’s surprise, his father encourages him, seeing the opportunity as a gift from God. But when Adam arrives, his good fortune soon turns sour: The Grand Imam falls fatally ill, creating a sensitive vacuum in Egyptian fragile power structure.
Which is where Fares’ secret serviceman Colonel Ibrahim comes in. The authorities favor a moderate candidate, one without ties to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Ibrahim is ordered to infiltrate and manipulate the selection process, but his mole at the university, Zizo (Mehdi Dehbi), has blown his cover. Zizo is tasked with finding a replacement, so he settles on the naïve Adam to take over. Adam is flattered by Zizo’s attention, and they spend an evening swigging Red Bull and dancing to hip-hop in a downtown bar, but when Zizo is viciously murdered, Adam soon works out that two mysterious sides are very much at war — and he’s in the middle. Summoning Adam to undercover meetings, Ibrahim puts Adam into increasingly dangerous situations with little regard for his safety, pushing the quick-witted Adam to think on his feet.
Saleh, who also scripted, has cited Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose as an influence, which is not so surprising, given the religious setting. But Boy from Heaven also is very much about the workings of the modern world and how politics and religion clash and entwine in any country. There’s also a dash of The Parallax View in there, and Barhom makes a very plausible patsy. Indeed, it doesn’t look like he’s doing very much at all, until the film’s gripping denouement shows the actor’s hidden firepower.
Tellingly, Boy from Heaven had to be shot in Turkey, since Saleh is persona non grata in Egypt. But though it does explain a little background of the history there, and certainly illuminates a very complicated subject, Saleh’s film works on many more levels than sociopolitical, delivering a sophisticated adult thriller while at the same time exploring the intense psychological dynamic of the relationship between Adam and Ibrahim, who might not be as invincible as thinks he is. It’s a strange fit for Cannes, but more festival slots surely will follow — and hopefully bigger projects for this smart, stylish director.
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