Tarik Saleh’s “Cairo Conspiracy,” which is representing Sweden in the Oscar race, has become France’s biggest (non-English) foreign-language hit since Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite.” The thought-provoking movie – Saleh’s follow up to “The Nile Hilton Incident” — competed at Cannes and won the screenplay award.

A thriller in Arabic revolving around religion, “Cairo Conspiracy” wasn’t an easy sell on paper but it’s already grossed approximately €3.2 million from more than 460,000 tickets in France since its Oct. 26 bow. It was released by Memento Distribution on 207 screens, and was expanded to more 500 screens on its third week, worthy of a major French title.

“Cairo Conspiracy” currently ranks as France’s biggest (non-English) foreign-language movie since “Parasite” which had garnered over two million admissions. The performance of Saleh’s film has surpassed Park Chan-Wook’s “Decision to Leave” which also played at Cannes and came out in June; as well as Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World” (220,000 tickets), Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” (200,000 tickets), as well as Asghar Farhadi’s “A Hero” which sold 208,000 tickets for Memento Distribution.

The film stars Tawfeek Barhom as Adam, the son of a fisherman who enters the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the epicenter of power of Sunni Islam. Shortly after his arrival in the Egyptian capital, the university’s highest-ranking religious leader dies suddenly, and Adam soon becomes a pawn in a ruthless struggle between Egypt’s religious and political elite. 

“‘Cairo Conspiracy’ has become a real sleeper hit: It’s still playing across 240 screens after six weeks!” says Alexandre Mallet-Guy, founder and president of Memento Distribution. The executive says it’s one of the “rare films that’s holding up” in cinemas even though there is a “plethora of movies coming out in November and December.”

Mallet-Guy points out the movie’s box office score is particularly high considering that the market share for arthouse films has been down by 30% to 40% in France. “Cairo Confidential” has also only been playing in its original version in French theaters, unlike Ruben Ostlund’s English-language satire “Triangle of Sadness” which has been dubbed — and has sold over 550,000 tickets since Sept. 28.

In order to market the movie, Memento Distribution positioned it as a spy thriller to tone down the religious theme and boost its commercial commercial. As a result, the film’s original name, “Boy From Heaven” became “Cairo Conspiracy.”

‘We chose a title that frames the film as a suspense thriller about infiltration, in the veins of Saleh’s previous film, ‘The Nile Hilton Incident’ which we had also renamed ‘Cairo Confidentiel,’ another highly successful foreign-language film that we handled,” says Mallet-Guy, who joked that even though both films tell very different stories, the fact that they have a similar title, the same star – Fares Fares — and Cairo as their backdrop makes it appear as if Saleh was doing a trilogy. “Everyone is awaiting the third opus!” quipped Mallet-Guy.

The poster, showing believers wearing fez hats from behind, suggests that the plot deals with religion to some extent, but is “intriguing enough, and invites audiences to penetrate into a world they don’t know,” says the executive, who cited recent espionage thrillers that have performed well in theaters in France, notably “Decision to Leave” and Dominik Moll’s “La nuit du 12.”

Memento Distribution primarily used billboards to promote the movie and played short clips in theaters during previews ahead of movies such as Cedric Jimenez’s “November” and “Triangle of Sadness.” “We were lucky to come out on the heels of these movies, it was the perfect run-up,” noted Mallet-Guy.

Still, the movie could have done even better at the French B.O. if Saleh and/or Fares had been able to promote it on TV or radio. Mallet-Guy says neither were invited to participate on shows because TV and radio producers in France don’t like to use translators. “When it’s James Gray for ‘Armageddon Time’ they don’t mind but when it’s a lesser known filmmaker or talent they do, even on Arte (the French-German TV channel) which is co-producing,” he says.

Still, Mallet-Guy says the box office performance of ‘Cairo Confidential’ gives him hope because it’s contributing to “breaking the glass ceiling for foreign-language films.” Besides “Parasite” and “The Nile Hilton Incident,” previous foreign-language hits include Farhadi’s “A Separation” and Jafaar Panahi’s “Taxi Teheran” which Memento Distribution also handled.

“Cairo Conspiracy” has been sold by Memento International to major territories, including North America with Samuel Goldwyn Films. The movie has been chosen to represent Sweden in the international feature film race whose short list will be unveiled on Dec. 21.