Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 11, 2014 8:04 pm 
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Harsh Bressonian coming-of-age of a gay Moroccan

Young Moroccan filmmaker Abdellah Taïa's semi-autobiographical, fragmentary gay coming-of-age story (based on his own 2006 novel), handsomely shot in blues and grays by Claire Denis's cinematographer Agnès Godard, is very, very austere, a young life seen in stony cold brutal terms. No horrific ordeals here, though. Just discipline, denial, humility, patience. This has some of the harsh qualities (with a nod or two at witchcraft) of the stories of Paul Bowles or his protegé Mohammed Mrabet. But this isn't storytelling. It's the schematic unfolding of a life in a few impressively drab scenes, ending in the longed-for achievement of every young, poor Moroccan male: escape to the most first-world of havens, Switzerland. The harsh Bressonian style is so unyielding the story's beauty comes through only when one thinks back on it.

As a teenager, Abdellah (Saïd Mrni), hard-faced, not handsome or pretty, lives in a large very poor family mostly of women in his father's traditional Casablanca house. There is his small brother, his big brother, and his father, who beats their mother, in a scene where the other males, with all the other females hovering by, break into the room where the beating is going on, and the mother comes out, seemingly unscathed despite many screams.

In warm weather Abdellah slips away to town to fetch bread where men pull him off for sex in the street; his father seems to recognize and condone this. It's a first escape for the very poor. Once, when a younger, good-looking man caresses Abdellah, he allows himself a smile. Abdellah seems to worship and eroticize his older brother Slimane (Amine Ennaji), whom his mother is afraid of losing, and when Slimane takes him and his younger brother to the seaside he abandons them and runs off with a waitress. Abdellah calls his mother and reports: her amulet didn't work, she needs to cast another spell. But Slimane has urged Abdellah to improve his French, essential for his escape.

Fast forward ten years: 25-year-old Abdellah (Karim Ait M’hand, with prettier eyes, but still the short street-boy hair) now has a Swiss seaside lover (Frédéric Landenberg). They're taken in a rowboat, and the oarsman sniggers knowingly in Moroccan Arabic to Abdellah about his good luck. Abdellah seems, as before, unenthusiastic about his older lover, a professor in Geneva. When Abdellah himself comes to Geneva, it's confusing. It appears he's there for graduate work, but he's arrived a month before his scholarship is to begin. It seems to have been all arranged with help from his professor, but he goes to see the man and says he is through with him. They have words, "You're a whore," the professor tells him. "Yes, I'm a whore," Abdellah answers.

Abdellah has come to the promised land, and he has a visa and scholarship, but he still seems like a refugee. He stashes his suitcase in a locker, washes in a public restroom, sleeps on a bench, and winds up at L'armée du salut (the Salvation Army), where he's in a tiny room with another Moroccan, from Maknes, Mustapha (Hamza Slaoui), who sings him a song by Abdel Halim Hafiz, the Egyptian matinee idol of the Sixties, which he and his siblings loved when he was a youth. It's a plangent memory, a melancholy nostalgia without regret, and there the film ends. It seems a little abrupt, but feeling a film is too short is an unusual and sweet pleasure.

Salvation Army/L'Armée du salut, 81 mins., debuted at Venice Critics' Week Sept 2013 and played at other festivals, including Toronto. It opens in France 7 May 2014. Screened for this review as part of the FSLC-MoMA New Directors/New Films series. Opens in New York on January 23, 2015 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

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