It's hard to pinpoint exactly where director Abdellah Taia's Salvation Army goes wrong, mostly because it had so much going for it to begin with. Based on Taia's own successful autobiographical novel of the same name, the film attempts to tell a story not often seen on screen, that of a young gay man growing up in Morocco, trying to reconcile his own desires with his obligations to his family.
Actor Said Mrini plays the young Abdellah, a boy of 15 who lives in a small house where he seems to fade into the background in a household dominated by several sisters and the constant tensions between his overbearing mother and surly father. There's also his older brother Slimane (Amine Ennaji), who he simultaneously admires and desires, despite himself. We watch him navigate the stresses at home and, outside the house, grapple with his sexuality as he carries on several physical relationships with older men in the neighborhood.
In many ways, the film's subject matter is refreshing. Again, it's always important to see stories about people in the LGBT community from a distinctly non-Western point-of-view. Mrini handles several sex scenes with a bravery and maturity that's impressive for someone so young. And it's surely a beautiful film to look at - Agnes Godard's cinematography turns the mundanities of Abdellah’s Casablanca neighborhood into a muted kind of poetry.
And yet there isn't much to say about the film beyond that. It's unfortunate, because from its first moments Salvation Army is a movie overflowing with promise and possibility. But for such a distinct and uncommon tale, it does little in the way of really engaging the viewer. The problem is that the characters aren't really engaged, especially the character we're supposed to be the most invested in.
Things happen to Abdellah - there is vignette after vignette of things happening to him, but at no point do we ever get a real inkling about how he feels about these things. This seems to be no fault of Mrini, who does what he can with very little dialogue and seemingly even less direction. There's a distance created by Taia's adaptation of his own work, which gives little insight into Abdellah's inner world, his motivations, and ultimately leaves the viewer feeling a little cold.
The film has a very disjointed plot, and sometimes disjointed, vague plots can be rather effective. But the real issue is how Taia dangles important, interesting themes in front of the audience, then snatches them away. We see the teenaged Abdellah dispassionately have sex with much older men throughout the film - but the dynamics and implications of these relationships, how they may be connected to his sexual desire for his brother, how they affect him, are never fully explored.
And after a very long set up of his teenhood that ultimately leads to nowhere, the movie awkwardly jumps not once but twice into the future, presenting an older version of Abdellah (Karim Ait M'Hand) while miraculously revealing even less of who he is. After a while, the mystery of it all becomes a little tiresome. The film ends with a pretty but predictably, frustratingly vague final scene. It isn't offensive, just disappointing. What's left is the question of what could have been.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.