It opens this Friday, January 23, for a one week exclusive theatrical run at Film Society, Lincoln Center…
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where
director Abdellah Taia’s “Salvation Army”
goes wrong, mostly because it had so much going for it to begin with. Based on
Taia’s own successful autobiographical novel of the same name, the film
attempts to tell a story not often seen on screen, that of a young gay man
growing up in Morocco, trying to reconcile his own desires with his obligations
to his family.
Actor Said Mrini plays the young
Abdellah, a boy of 15 who lives in a small house where he seems to fade into
the background in a household dominated by several sisters and the constant
tensions between his overbearing mother and surly father. There’s also his
older brother Slimane (Amine Ennaji), who he simultaneously admires and
desires, despite himself. We watch him navigate the stresses at home and,
outside the house, grapple with his sexuality as he carries on several
physical relationships with older men in the neighborhood.
In many ways, the film’s subject
matter is refreshing. Again, it’s always important to see stories about people
in the LGBT community from a distinctly non-Western point-of-view. Mrini handles several sex scenes with a
bravery and maturity that’s impressive for someone so young. And it’s surely a
beautiful film to look at – Agnes Godard’s cinematography turns the mundanities
of Abdellah’s Casablanca neighborhood into a muted kind of poetry.
And yet there isn’t much to say
about the film beyond that. It’s unfortunate, because from its first moments “Salvation
Army” is a movie overflowing with promise and possibility. But for such a
distinct and uncommon tale, it does little in the way of really engaging the
viewer. The problem is that the characters aren’t really engaged, especially
the character we’re supposed to be the most invested in.
Things happen to Abdellah – there
is vignette after vignette of things happening to him, but at no point do we
ever get a real inkling about how he feels about these things. This seems to be
no fault of Mrini, who does what he can with very little dialogue and seemingly
even less direction. There’s a distance created by Taia’s adaptation of his own
work, which gives little insight into Abdellah’s inner world, his motivations,
and ultimately leaves the viewer feeling a little cold.
The film has a very disjointed
plot, and sometimes disjointed, vague plots can be rather effective. But the
real issue is how Taia dangles important, interesting themes in front of the
audience, then snatches them away. We see the teenaged Abdellah dispassionately
have sex with much older men throughout the film – but the dynamics and
implications of these relationships, how they may be connected to his sexual
desire for his brother, how they affect him, are never fully explored.
And after a very long set up of his
teenhood that ultimately leads to nowhere, the movie awkwardly jumps not once
but twice into the future, presenting an older version of Abdellah (Karim Ait
M’Hand) while miraculously revealing even less of who he is. After a while, the
mystery of it all becomes a little tiresome. The film ends with a pretty but
predictably, frustratingly vague final scene. It isn’t offensive, just
disappointing. What’s left is the question of what could have been.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.