Movie Review - Salvation Army (L'armée du Salut)

Saïd Mrini (left) and Amine Ennaji
debate French vs. Arabic in 'L'armée du Salut'
Abdellah Taïa is a 40-something writer and filmmaker born and raised in northern Morocco. He came out as gay in 2007 during an interview for TelQuel magazine, making him the first openly gay Arab writer. He's since published eight novels and as of 2014, he remains the only openly gay writer or filmmaker from Morocco. This film is an adaptation of his memoir or bildungsroman of the same name, which stands as Arab cinema's first gay protagonist. Needless to say, this movie is a notable landmark for film history, but being notable doesn't make it necessarily good.

Saïd Mrini stars as Abdellah, a teenage boy living in a poor neighborhood in Morocco. He lives in a very small home, a veritable shack that other than the kitchen and foyer only has three other rooms. Abdellah lives there with 10 people, his mom, his dad, his older brother Silmane, his younger brother Mustapha and his six sisters. At this point, he's quiet. He's dutiful. He's sensitive and despite his living conditions still is very curious about sex.

Abdellah is not just curious about sex. He's especially curious about sex with a specific person, his own brother Silmane, played by Amine Ennaji. The opening scene is in fact Abdellah sleaking into Slimane's bed and reveling in the idea of sharing that bed with him. In general, Abdellah secretly yearns affection from any and all males. At first, Abdellah seems like a passive participant but as the movie goes along he becomes more aggressive and confidant, until he doesn't feel the need to rely on the affections of men at all.

The problem is the break that Taïa makes two-thirds into the movie. Taïa puts up a title saying, "10 years later." We then continue to follow Abdellah in his college years, as he makes efforts to leave Morocco and settle in Europe. Mrini is no longer used. Karim Ait M'hand steps-in to play Abdellah, and despite being a more mature and sexier guy M'hand is not portrayed as having any sexual interaction. However, I don't see the point of switching actors. Mrini could have portrayed the more adult version of Abdellah, or else M'hand could have portrayed the younger version of Abdellah. The switch seems pointless and kills the emotional momentum.

What's also killed is the idea of incest, which is the driving force for Abdellah in all of Mrini's screen time. Abdellah steals Slimane's underwear and smells it by burying his face in it. He stares at Slimane in overt, homoerotic ways. For example, Slimane takes Abdellah and Mustapha to a hotel and Abdellah pretends to be asleep, as Slimane emerges from a shower and Abdellah secretly watches Slimane walk about naked. The intimation is clear that Abdellah wants to have sex with Slimane, his own brother.

Yet, this idea is never reconciled. It's never truly addressed or even tied off. There's no context or contradiction. It's as if this incestuous desire is normal. Maybe culturally it is, but Taïa just throws it out there. Much like all the things here, Taïa simply drops it front of us almost haphazardly. A scene involving domestic abuse between Abdellah's mother and father is thrown out there and fizzles without it being truly addressed. A scene of someone throwing rocks at Abdellah or him getting into a fight is thrown out and not explained either.

A slight cultural clash is touched upon. Abdellah debates the relevance or importance of speaking or reading French as opposed to their mother tongue of Arabic. At the end, Abdellah seems desperate to get and stay out of Morocco, but Taïa doesn't really portray Morocco in a way that would make Abdellah's desperation understandable. Yes, he and his family live in poverty, but Abdellah walks down the street or walks through a market and can get sex. Yes, he has to keep it secret, but I'm not sure the repression is felt to enough of a degree. This film provides a glimpse into Moroccan culture, but more would have been better.

The title is also misleading. It references the charitable, Christian organization, but the actual Salvation Army isn't even integral to the narrative. It's featured only at the end for a moment. Emotionally and maybe spiritually, the Salvation Army seems to be an important landmark or touchstone in Taïa's life. It perhaps was a literal salvation for him, but it should feel like a salvation for the Abdellah character and it doesn't. It's a shame because if you go to the Salvation Army USA's web site, there's a whole section dedicated to the LGBT community.

Taïa pulls some good performances from his actors and without actually showing sex or simulating intercourse on screen, he's able to craft very hot moments, but that all it ends up being.

L'armée du Salut.
Two Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains nudity and sexual situations.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 25 mins.

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