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The road from Morocco
Morocco in the mid-20th Century was known as a haven for gay Europeans and Americans. Literary giants like Jean Genet, Andre Gide, Joe Orton, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Truman Capote all swarmed to the northern African country for about a century, taking advantage of an acceptance that was, according to author Barnaby Rogerson speaking to the BBC, “tolerance is practiced but not preached.”
Now that Morocco is under a central government’s control instead of a coalition of foreign powers, and fundamentalists have risen to the fore of Islam throughout the region, it is less accepting than it once was, but homosexuality still exists there, as it does everywhere two people can meet and fall in love.
It is in this world that the film Salvation Army is set, a semiautobiographical film now available from Strand Releasing on DVD and digitally.
Directed and written by Abdellah Taïa, it bears the same name as his autobiographical novel, but he purposely retold the story without trying to simply adapt the book.
“I understood fairly quickly that I had to forget the book, and not even try to read it again,” Taïa said. “I needed to find a movie project that would follow the main line of the novel without necessarily trying to be faithful to it.”
“The only thing I had to be faithful to was my vision of Morocco, of a Moroccan self that is impossible to construct freely,” he continued.
The story focuses on the semi-fictional Abdellah, both as a diminutive 15-year old and as a young man going to college. As a teenager, he is obsessed with his older brother Slimane, crammed in a house with his numerous sisters, his mother and his father, who is abusive to the mother but dotes on young Abdellah.
The teen is already sexually active with a string of older men, and in the film it is never quite clear whether many of these are random encounters or ongoing trysts. Abdellah’s emotions seem solely focused on his family, although there is a sense that his encounters with men are a proxy for his desire for his brother.
When Abdellah is older, played by another actor, his sexual behavior seems more calculating. He has now realized that he can use his affection and his body for his own benefit, being taken care of by older European men. He even parlays his favors into an entrance into an art program at university in Geneva, where he has an acrimonious encounter with his sponsor.
The two actors give almost no indication of their thoughts and emotions; they are the cuckoos in the nest, the changelings left in the crib. Nobody really understands them, not even the audience.
Speaking of Karim Aït M’Hand, who plays the older Abdellah, and Saïd Mrini, portraying the younger, Taïa noted, “On the set, [they] may not look alike but they both have a face that perfectly expresses opacity. They are inscrutable, impenetrable. This is what I wanted to express in the movie: a world where things cannot be understood at once.”
The only drawbacks for the film are the sheer foreignness of the story it is telling and the disjointed nature of watching a film with subtitles. For those who took French in school, some of the dialogue is comprehensible without the subtitles, but they still create a disconnect from the story that is strangely fitting, as Abdellah seems to have an odd disconnect from the life in which he finds himself.
It is not a light-hearted coming-of-age film. That is not what Taïa lived 20, 25 years ago, so that is not what he presents to the audience today. It is, however, an honest film, if a guarded one.