Salvation Army, the directorial debut of Moroccan writer Abdellah Taia who based the film on his autobiographical novel, is a film of remarkable quietude. There is an intensity to the quiet that is perhaps borne of the film’s subject matter—growing up gay in Morocco. While the same story of burgeoning heterosexual desires might be boisterous, loud, even bawdy, Taia’s is a story of hidden lust, private desires, forced silence. A sexual encounter near the center of the film is indicative of the film’s furtiveness: we view Abdellah (Said Mrini) and his sexual partner kissing at the top of a staircase from a middle distance, as if we were spying on them. Abdellah slowly crouches behind a barricade, and his partner follows, until both are completely hidden from view.
This is just one of Abdellah’s many sexual encounters in the film. Each one has an air of quiet desperation, as if Abdellah were trying to escape his life through sex. Restless inside a large family, Abdellah is caught between mother and father and fantasizes about his older brother Slimane (Amine Ennaji) for whom he feels an undeniable sexual attraction. In the film’s most memorable sequence, Abdellah, Slimane, and their younger brother take a trip to the coast, during which Abdellah and Slimane appear to draw closer until Slimane suddenly disappears.
The film is often quite striking—it was shot by Agnès Godard, who is well-known for her stunning camerawork for Claire Denis—with artfully composed long shots, but Taia seems somehow afraid of this beauty, as if by showing a little too much of the scenery we might lose sight of his characters. Many shots are based around symmetry and bifurcations of the frame, which is mirrored in the film’s bipartite structure. A little over halfway through the film there is a surprising leap in time ten years into the future. The divided structure emphasizes the changes Abdellah has gone through without specifically pointing them out. Many of the scenes in this second part directly echo scenes in the first. As a boy, Abdellah chides Slimane for reading French, “the language of the rich,” but ten years later we see Slimane not only speaking French but living with a wealthy Swiss man. The symmetry of the structure and compositions also highlights the ways in which is Abdellah is perpetually torn—between family and desire in the first half, between class and happiness in the second.
Taia’s approach to his material can lead to a feeling of emotional distance. For most audiences, Salvation Army is likely to seem as if it’s slipping through their fingers, never quite hitting the points we expect it to hit. But what Taia sacrifices in satisfactory storytelling he makes up for in clear-eyed observation. Taia rigorously refuses to sensationalize or (as detractors might argue) even dramatize the events of his life. He shows incidents but does not always tell us what they mean or even how they all fit together. Vast portions of Abdellah’s life are left out of Salvation Army, while seemingly unimportant details receive peculiar focus. And the film ends without the slightest bit of resolution. Taia could have easily pitched his film to the sensibilities of the international festival crowd, by emphasizing the political repression of homosexuals in Morocco, telling the tale of forbidden lust in an exotic land. Instead, Taia has created a work that is more mysterious, even if it is also less satisfying.