Salvation Army (L'Armee du Salut): Venice Review

Salvation Army Venice Film Festival - H 2013

Salvation Army Venice Film Festival - H 2013

A complex but fascinating childhood in Morocco is followed by a tough and difficult-to-follow time in Switzerland.

The feature debut of gay, France-based Moroccan novelist Abdellah Taia is an adaptation of his own autobiographical first novel.

VENICE, Italy – A young Moroccan gay boy tries to make sense of the world around him in Salvation Army (L'Armee du Salut), France-based Moroccan novelist Abdellah Taia’s film adaptation of his autobiographical first novel of the same name.

The film chronicles the sexual awakening of sorts of a 15-year-old boy from Casablanca who’s obsessed with his handsome older brother, has sex with men from the neighborhood and finally moves to Switzerland 10 years later. Though the film’s European scenes carry too little dramatic weight and might be confusing for those unfamiliar with the novel, the Morocco-set opening 40 minutes are beautifully and quietly observed.  

Francophone territories are the likeliest takers for theatrical rights, with a French release tentatively scheduled for January, 2014 through Rezo. The film, which premieres at Venice and Toronto, should also appeal to other festivals, while the fact that all sex scenes rigorously take place offscreen suggests Taia might be hoping it'll be released in Morocco, as well.

Teenager Abdellah (Said Mrini) is a quiet kid raised in a lower-class, big and boisterous family in which his father and his older brother, Slimane (Amine Ennaji), are the only two men he can look up to. His mother, gaggle of smaller sisters and his kid brother, Mustapha, form a single closed unit, while 15-year-old Abdellah finds himself lost in the middle, neither a man nor a child anymore.

Further complicating the relationship with his father is the fact his old man occasionally beats his mother, forcing him to choose sides. Very quiet by nature, Abdellah assimilates all of this and obsesses over the single male role model in his family: Slimane, though his burgeoning sexuality -- he occasionally has sex with older local men at an abandoned construction site, something that seems refreshingly normal and natural for him -- make his feelings for Slimane very confused.

Though a writer by trade, Taia manages to convey most of this in looks and hushed tones, and roughly the first half of the 80-minute film could work well as a standalone item. But a sequence in which Slimane, Mustapha and Abdellah go to the seaside together -- where his older brother explains to him the importance of French, the language of the rich people -- and the film’s last half-hour, set in rainy, Francophone Geneva 10 years later, throw everything that has come before into a different light.

In Switzerland, Abdellah is homeless and finally finds shelter at a building of the titular Salvation Army, and it takes a while for viewers to figure out why he’s without a roof over his head and how what's happening connects to the material that has come before. It’s clear that the protagonist has changed a lot -- and not only physically, as he’s now played by Karim Ait M’hand -- and not for the better, and audiences are required to fill in the gaps quickly to make sense of this last section, something that might be a stretch for those unfamiliar with the source material.

The adult Abdellah’s behavior is, of course, informed by his past, but the violent outside factors that have changed his personality were more implied than clearly stated earlier on and thus it’s hard to directly relate them to the nasty piece of work Abdellah’s become (not to mention the fact it's much harder to root for a character who turns out to be rather ruthless). However, M’hand, a good physical match for Mrini, still manages to be moving in the film’s final shot, in which a fellow Arab at the Salvation Army sings him a song by 1950s Arab idol Abdel Halim Hafez.

The ensemble delivers strong, authentic-feeling work that’s a good fit with the equally authentic-feeling locations. And French star cinematographer Agnes Godard (The Golden Door, 35 Rhums, Sister) again proves she’s got one of the business’s sharpest eyes for composition and light, with the use of offscreen space especially exemplary. Crisp sound work and silences are also employed at key moments.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
Production companies: Les Films de Pierre, Les Films Pelleas, Rita Production, Ali N’Films
Cast: Said Mrini, Karim Ait M’hand, Amine Ennaji
Writer-Director: Abdellah Taia
Producers: Hugues Charbonneau, Marie Ange Luciani
Director of photography: Agnes Godard
Costume designer: Saad Ghazi
Editor: Francoise Tourmen
No rating, 80 minutes