Young Moroccan scribe Abdellah Taia moves into the director’s seat with the screen version of his autobiographical novel “Salvation Army,” losing much of the texture in translation from pen to camera. Where the book delivered a straightforward, beautifully told story of a gay man negotiating family, desire and the sexual power play behind Arab-European intimacy, the pic largely jettisons the first-person narrative that allowed access to the protag’s head, replacing it with distancing coldness not helped by emotionless perfs. Queer fests and a small Francophone release will muster some attention.
While positive gay Arab protags are something of a cinematic novelty, “Salvation Army” isn’t the first to center around such a character, contrary to recent reports (Maher Sabry’s “All My Life” and Samer Daboul’s “Out Loud” are but two earlier examples). Taia’s largely autobiographical book, however, was a bold coming out, unadorned by guilt or sensationalism and directly confronting Western expectations, at least in gay circles, of Arab youth as adornments rather than equal companions. Transitioning his story to the screen, Taia retains the bare bones but strips away warmth and insight, without any fresh perceptions that would compensate.
Young Abdellah (Said Mrini), 15, lives with his parents, five sisters and two brothers in a working-class district of Casablanca. His father has one bedroom, his older brother Slimane (Amine Ennaji) another, and the third is a burrow-like space where the warmth of his mother’s body, alongside his other siblings, provides a cocoon of reassuring intimacy. This protective physical ease contrasts with his parents’ volatile relationship, in which mutually desired sex is often a precursor to his father beating his mother (Malika El Hamaoui).
Cohabitation within this charged atmosphere is made more electric by Abdellah’s erotic longing for Slimane; meanwhile, the teen has his first sexual encounters with men. In the book Taia presents these episodes as rites of passage in which Abdellah connects to his sexuality; later, he also understands them as problematic manifestations of repression and the power dynamic imposed by older guys on younger ones. But in the film, the helmer-scripter removes any trace of gratification, shooting these scenes at a voyeuristic, emotionless distance.
Ten years later (inelegantly signaled), Abdellah (Karim Ait M’hand) is in a relationship with an older Swiss professor (Frederic Landenberg). The film’s best scene occurs at this juncture, when a prying rowboat owner showing the couple the sites near the coastal city of El Jadida tells Abdellah he’s lucky to have nabbed a rich guy. The implication of gay-for-pay is inescapable, and an uncomfortable Abdellah does nothing to dispel the interpretation, since doing it for money is acceptable whereas having same-sex emotional attachments would be “haram.”
Taia leaves unclear what Abdellah gets out of the affair, though he implies that the Swiss lover is a shortcut to obtaining a European student visa. The last section of the film takes place in Geneva, where the Salvation Army of the title temporarily provides friendly faces, meals and a roof over his head.
The detached and impassive atmosphere Taia maintains throughout, with long silent takes, is unquestionably a conscious choice, yet apart from breaking with the tone of his novel, the airlessness remains puzzling. The main actors, especially Mrini, are ciphers, and although there’s a bit of first-person voiceover around 30 minutes in, there’s never a sense of entry into Abdellah’s thoughts or feelings. Taia places everyone against the most neutral backgrounds possible, further robbing his characters of resonance.
Even the masterful talents of d.p. Agnes Godard are minimized: A scene of the young Abdellah and his sister stomping laundry in tubs could have had a Proustian poetry about it, but somehow the sequence fails to capture the imagination. DCP issues at screening caught may be partly to blame, since a mud-bath scene appears to play with contrasting textures of mud and skin, but was too murky to convey sensory delight.