Young Moroccan scribe Abdellah Taia moves into the director’s seat with the screen version of his autobiographical novel “Salvatio. ” The film delivers a straightforward, beautifully told story of a gay man negotiating family, desire and the sexual power play behind Arab-European intimacy. Thestrong pint-of-view narrative allows access to the protaganist’s head, despite the character’s understandable distancing coldness.
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 butsome of the warmth and insight is lost in the transition.
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 reflects Adellah’s hardening facade. The main actors, especially Mrini, are ciphers. A nice bit of first-person voiceover around 30 minutes in, allows us entry into Abdellah’s thoughtsand feelings. Taia places everyone against the most neutral backgrounds possible, further displaying the resonance of his characters.
Even the masterful talents of d.p. Agnes Godard add to the film’s sober, but yearning tone: A scene of the young Abdellah and his sister stomping laundry in tubs has a Proustian poetry about it. An erotic and revealing mud-bath scene appears plays with contrasting textures of mud and skin and delivers as a sensory delight.
“Salvation Army” will be shown at Frameline 38 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival at the Victoria Theatre June 20 at 9:30 p.m. and at the Roxie Theatre June 27 at 7 p.m. For more information go to: www.frameline.org.