Directed by Abdellah Taïa
Opens January 23 at The Film Society of Lincoln Center
Whatever the breakthrough status of Abdellah Taïa’s Salvation Army—touted as Morocco’s first queer coming-of-age story—the picture’s emotional wallop arises from its startlingly minimalist notion of cinematic memory. This is a movie with nary a pan, no tracks and no zooms, and yet it plays the opposite of sclerotic, highlighting the way a passing, unremarked-upon moment in life can become an internal turning point. In adapting his autobiographical novel of same name, Taïa’s screenplay spends its first half excavating a dust-caked teenage summer, only to leap forward ten years for the second—peering with uncertainty at the man Taïa’s protagonist Abdellah (played by Said Mirini as a teenager, and Karim Ait M’Hand as an adult) has become. Before embarking on an awkward vacation with his magnetic older brother Slimane (Amine Ennaji), young Abdellah’s days in his claustrophobic hometown are spent being passed from one older man to the next—pained encounters captured with an unflinching, voyeuristic clarity. Even here, Taïa’s staging is against formula, keeping the frame awash in panoramic ambience; if these are traumas, their depiction in hindsight is nervewrackingly cold.
Ennaji’s French-speaking, dreamy-eyed Slimane suits the screen better than either of the actors playing Abdellah, a choice that seems intentional: one performer’s unfussy allure made all the more haunting for its brevity. As a boy, Abdellah is outflanked by unspeakable desires, and his only refuge is the continued negotiation of survival and the dream of a better life, which eventually means escaping as a young man to Switzerland. Salvation Army interrogates Abdellah’s uneasy relationship with his own stereotyping as an Arab man—growing up means transitioning from a sex object to one, too, of postcolonial lust. The film’s funniest scene sees him interpreting between a Swiss tourist and a local fisherman, who asks Abdellah to negotiate him a bigger tip for rowing the two men across a river (Abdellah complies). If taciturn, Abdellah becomes all the more poignant for his tight-lippedness, the hardness of his stare—sad eyes registering every minute exchange between childhood repression and the agonies of adult freedom.