Four childhood friends from the slums are recruited by Islamic fundamentalists and turned into suicide bombers in Nabil Ayouch’s affecting, strongly edited “Horses of God.” Based on a 2003 bombing in Casablanca, the pic delves into a shantytown atmosphere of machismo, wounded pride and powerlessness, which collectively act as a petri dish for fanaticism. By spending considerable time on milieu and the friends as kids, Ayouch sets his film apart, delineating personalities that avoid the cookie-cutter repetition seen elsewhere. “Horses” will trot confidently into Euro arthouses.
Sidi Moumen is a slum on the outskirts of Casablanca, a sprawling community on a bluff whose impoverished residents rarely if ever set foot in the cosmopolitan city at their doorstep. A soccer match between local kids quickly establishes later roles: Hamid is aggressive and fiercely protective of younger brother Yachine, whose best friend, Nabil, is frequently bullied. Yachine isn’t assertive enough to protect Nabil from homophobic taunts or his subsequent rape by another kid.
Home life for Hamid and Yachine is complicated: One brother is gone, another is unbalanced, their father has lost his mind, and their mother is a termagant who clearly favors Hamid for his assertive independence. Though he’s just a child, he’s also the breadwinner and the only real man around the house. As a teen, Hamid (Abdelilah Rachid) runs with a bad crowd, exerting a cocky authority that gets him thrown in the slammer for three years when he hurls a rock at a cop car.
While Hamid’s in prison, Yachine (Abdelhakim Rachid) emerges from his brother’s shadow, even secretly courting the sister of friend Fouad (Ahmed El Idrissi Amrani). Soon after 9/11, Hamid emerges from jail a changed man, now under the sway of Islamic fundamentalists whose power is growing in the community. Gradually, the seductive persuasion of Hamid and his fellow fanatics influence the others, and in 2003 the brothers, along with Nabil and Fouad, are selected to blow themselves up at a Casablanca watering hole.
The helmer spent considerable time in Sidi Moumen, and while the pic was shot elsewhere, Ayouch is clearly reproducing the charged atmosphere of the place, with its fractured hierarchies and its disturbing assertion of a brutal masculinity that cowardly victimizes anyone perceived as “soft.” Ultimately, the training and suicide mission are less interesting to Ayouch than the initial forming of character, and the fundamentalist cell members are only stock figures; what’s important is the group’s sense of disenfranchisement and the lure of inner peace.
Ayouch demonstrated his expert handling of children in sophomore pic “Ali Zaoua,” and he’s lost none of his touch in capturing their world with sober sympathy. Lensing is a standout, transitioning from free camerawork in the early scenes to more static shots in keeping with the rigidity of the fundamentalist mentality. Especially praiseworthy is Damien Keyeux’s editing, first noticeable during Nabil’s unsettling rape, intercut with shots of his mother dancing at a wedding, and climaxing at the very end, during the suicide mission. So good is the cutting, in fact, that the use of written-out dates to signal the passage of time feels unnecessary in the latter half and tends to break the flow.