By Carlos Aguilar | SydneysBuzz May 13, 2014 at 8:00AM
Horses of God, Morocco's Submission for the Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. U.S. : Kino Lorber. Production Company: Stone Angels
Within the endless parade of stories concerning the disadvantaged youth of an impoverished country living in terrible conditions, there are usually only two paths to follow. There are those triumphant cases in which some of these children defy their deprived background, and against all odds persevere to improve their circumstances. More commonly, there are narratives that deal with all the wrong choices that could lead them to a life of crime. Predestined to fail by their environment, they try to make a living by getting involved in any illicit activity that is profitable, which results in either death or imprisonment. They are easy prey for anyone who promises them a better future in the face of such despair. But what if it wasn’t drug dealers or thieves who seek to take advantage of their hopelessness? In Nabil Ayouch’s eye-opening and brave feature Horses of God those who procure them into evil offer them eternal pleasures in exchange for martyrdom.
Growing up in the Sidi Moumen slum just outside the Moroccan city of Casablanca, Yachine (Abdelhakim Rachid), just like the rest of the boys in his community, loves to play soccer and spends his days hanging out with his best pal Nabil (Hamza Souidek). Unfortunately, things at home are chaotic for both kids. Besides living under the shadow of his charming and street-smart older brother Hamid (Abdelilah Rachid), young Yachine also has to deal with his mentally unstable father and oldest sibling, and a mother who passes the time watching Mexican soap operas. On the other hand, Nabil’s effeminate demeanor and his mother’s immoral activities make him a target for constant attacks. Knowing that the only way out of this town is making it big as a soccer player or selling drugs, Hamid takes it upon himself to bring money home. He chooses the most feasible option, which lands him in jail.
A couple years after, now as teenagers, Yachine and Nabil work at a repair shop trying to provide for their families. Suddenly, the once troublesome Hamid returns to the neighborhood a changed man. At peace with his past misdeeds thanks to a newly found devotion for the Islamic principles, he tries to get Yachine and his friends to join him. Reluctant at first, the young men feel in debt with the religious brothers after they help them cover up a gruesome crime scene.
They begin by attending prayer, learning about the righteous way to conduct their lives, and forming part of a fraternal community. Immediately, Yachine, Nabil, and their friend Fouad (Ahmed El Idrissi Amrani) feel like a void in them has been filled. They belong to something bigger than themselves now. They are no longer alone. Soon enough the higher-ups in this clandestine organization reveal their intentions of bestowing in these boys, Hamid included, the honor of becoming Horses of God. Those who by sacrificing their lives in the name of Islam carry their deity’s message to greater heights. They transcend death to become heroes and exist in everlasting joy.
Ayouch‘s narrative evolves from one of broken childhood dreams into a story of juvenile minds being tainted by the poisoning and deceiving threat of religious fanaticism. The idea of dying a martyr is most easily assimilated by those whose earthly existence seems to have no purpose or possibility of improvement. These men in the prime of their lives have been chosen to die and inflict pain onto others because they were gullible enough to equate spirituality with violence. Their willingness to perish doesn't derive from any religious or political conviction. They are peons in a larger operation, a Jihad that doesn’t belong to them. Under the false pretense of being rescued from their sinful path, they are molded into the perfect sacrificial goat to satisfy the group’s greater ulterior motivations.
Based on Mahi Binebine's novel The Stars of Sidi Moumen, which deals with the 2003 Casablanca bombings, Ayouch's work uses the boys’ experiences to examine the recent history of Morocco and its position within the Muslim world. His camera glides through the desolated urban wasteland and dives into a controversial subject with fearless assertiveness. Stunningly impacting, the film capitalizes on all-around great performances being Abdelhakim Rachid as Yachim a more than memorable standout. With imperative urgency this work seeks to humanize these indoctrinated individuals who are often thought of as monsters. By doing so the filmmaker reveals how the real evildoers benefit from the lack of opportunities and use faith as a lethal weapon. Horses of God is a provocative and courageous cinematic statement.
*Note: Horses of God is a presentation from Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme
The film will open in New York on May 14th, at the Film Forum