Sunday, June 7, 2015

Abdellah Taïa | L’armée du salut (Salvation Army)

what doesn’t get said
by Douglas Messerli

Abdellah Taïa (writer and director, based on his fiction) L’armée du salut (Salvation Army) / 2013, USA 2015

Salvation1Most critics appear to have perceived Abdellah Taïa’s Salvation Army, based on his own autobiographical fiction, as a kind of “coming of age” movie, an expression of youth similar except in its sexual orientation and religious and cultural perspectives, as the Out magazine critic suggested, to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. In fact, Taia’s Moroccan-set film could not be more different. Yes, both films do relate their tales in terms of quietude, forcing the viewer to observe and draw his own conclusions rather than engage in a verbal dialogue with the characters; and, yes, both works have a kind of laconic looseness in their narrative structures. Indeed, for precisely these qualities The New York Times reviewer, Ben Kenigsberg, found Salvation Army to be “remote,” and “vague.”

salvation4     But the young Abdellah (Said Mirni) of Taïa’s work, unlike Linklater’s is quite aware of his sexuality in a country that outlaws gay sexuality while at the same time closing an eye to the virtual “rape” of young boys by local shopkeepers, construction workers, and numerous others within the community. To Americans it may appear as unusual that Abdellah’s father (Ahdelhak Swilah) seems vaguely aware and accepting of his son’s sexual encounters, going so far as to invite the child into his own bed, but it is just this sexual hypocrisy—where at one moment the elder leaves his child alone with a market grocer so that the two can quickly engage in sex, and the very next moment he beats Abdellah’s mother (Malika El Hamaoui) after engaging with her in sex—that tortures the young boy. Indeed, the two are very much interrelated in this macho-misogynistic society. Nearly everywhere he goes, the fragile boy is invited by workers to be fucked or to perform fellatio on them, while at the same time his very life is endangered by a mysterious rock-throwing citizen, obviously aware of his sexual activities in a community where everyone knows everyone else. 
     Abdellah, in fact, can find no privacy in this world. Forced to sleep with numerous other brothers and sisters, yet scolded by his mother for even entering his beloved brother Slimane’s (Arnine Ennajji) room—where he fetishes the handsome masculinity of his sibling—the young gay man is confused less by his being taken advantage of (he is, after all, beautiful and weak) than the pleasure he derives from the acts. Only once, when he approaches a hirsute construction worker himself and the two actually engage in sensuous love-making rather than a savage sex act, does he allow himself to smile.
    Is it any wonder, accordingly that Abdellah retreats to an inner, unspoken life, a life in which hardly anything is said and can only be interpreted by its visual signs: his travels back and forth to the baker who will bake his mother’s bread, his retreats to his brother’s bed when the brother is absent, and his intense moments of brooding wherein, at one point he is even caught by his father counting the petals of a lover’s flower: “he loves me, he loves me not.” The details are not as important as the outlines; we never discover who his would-be lover is.

salvation2     If you want to call Taïa’s approach, accordingly, remote, so be it. The very point of his tale is how different the young Abdellah’s world is from the open (yet in some ways more closed) Western countries. Linklater’s Mason, despite the difficulties of his youth, lives in a world somewhat removed, but also innocent, free from the deep complexities of sexuality and violence; he is given the time and space to sort things out, to become himself. Taïa’s Abdellah, on the other hand, has been plunged in a confusing and often cruel world where it is expected that a child might engage in homosexual activity but where he will be punished if he finds some pleasure in the act or continues to be sexually homosexual—except in the furtive world of boy-men relationships—as an adult. In Mason’s world youth is a time in which one needn’t speak; in Abdellah’s childhood, the important things cannot be said. And the movie has no choice but to show things often without openly saying and explaining them.
      Of central importance in Abdellah’s eventual “freedom” is his relationship with his brother. When Slimane, still living at home, determines to take a short vacation to a sea-resort, he is forced to take along the two younger brothers, Abdellah and the child Mustapha. Even that time with his much admired sibling is still a mixed event for Abdellah. First of all, he must share the time with his little brother; more importantly, he is sent along on the voyage by the mother to spy on him, and to keep his brother from spending his money on prostitutes. Giving Abdellah a talisman to protect Slimane, she hisses, he must remain “ours.”

SALVATION-master675      Mustapha shares Slimane’s bed, while Abdellah is forced to sleep so very near his would-be lover-protector without a touch. And Abdellah is confused, as well, by his brother’s disdain for Moroccan and the Arabic language when he discovers that Slimane is reading a book by the Greek author Kazantzakis in French. Slimane attempts to explain that the only way to escape the world in which he clearly feels trapped is to turn to French and European culture, a realization which Abdellah will eventually come to as well, but with obvious regrets.
     Despite Abdellah’s attempts to keep his brother close, Slimane slips away with a local waitress and, as Abdellah reports in a phone call home to his mother, “abandons” his brothers.
      What doesn’t get said is that, during the same day, Abdellah also temporarily abandons Mustapha when he encounters a young man on the beach who is obviously interested in a sexual encounter.
      A few scenes later and 10 years later, moreover, we discover that it is the grown Abdellah who has escaped his family’s clutches, while Slimane has remained at home. As we might have expected, Abdellah has become a sexual partner to a sophisticated Swiss professor, Jean (Frédéric Landenberg). But although we might be tempted to see this relationship as a movement forward in the young man’s life, we recognize, through Abdellah’s continued lack of expression and, particularly, in a discussion with a would-be tour guide in Arabic instead of French, that there are severe tensions in his relationship. And although Jean seems to be kind and thoughtful to Abdellah there is, in his cultural presumptions, something irritating and paternalistic in his behavior with the young Moroccan.
     In the very next scene, we discern that Abdellah has left Jean, but, nonetheless, has been admitted into the university in Geneva where Jean teaches. But now at that Abdellah has broken away from his dependency on sex, he has nowhere left to go. The university classes will not begin for another month, and the young man is forced to sleep on park benches. 
     By accident, he encounters Jean in the halls of the university. Jean, obviously hurt by Abdellah’s abandonment, tries to get a fuller explanation, but once again Abdellah retreats into silence, claiming he has explained everything in an earlier letter.
      Jean argues that he always wanted for Abdellah to go to school, and would have financially made it possible; he feels that he, in fact, has been “used” as way for Abdellah to escape to Europe. But Abdellah refuses to discuss the matter, and Taïa’s script refrains from trying to explain the young man’s decisions. 
     Anyone who has followed carefully to the boy’s actions, however, might recognize his position. When Jean accuses him of having been a prostitute, the young man shouts out that indeed he has been just that, that he has used Jean as a way to escape to Europe. But what we know is that, for the first time in his life, by leaving Jean, Abdellah is coming into a new life through his own will alone. No longer he willing to simply enjoy privilege on the basis of his sexuality. Quite the opposite of most “coming out” fictions, Taïa’s tale demonstrates how a gay man must temporarily give up his old behavior, abandoning his passive sexuality in order to truly make his own choice.
      Refusing to give in to Jean’s easier offer, Abdellah seeks out asylum in the local Salvation Army, where, in meeting another young Arab, he expresses—even in his determination to make a new life for himself—a homesickness for the world he has left, asking the young man, evidently a singer, to perform one of his favorite songs from his troubled youth. We recognize that he finally has come to terms with who he is.

Los Angeles, June 7, 2015

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