[27 May 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Imagining life after death, Yachine (Abdelhakim Rachid) focuses on a girl. “Tell me,” he asks, “What will Ghislaine think when she learns I’ve died a martyr? Will she be sad? Happy?” His brother reminds him that they’ll be leaving behind such earthly objects of desire. “There are loads in paradise,” he says. “Hundreds of Ghislaines, thousands.”
You see a black screen as you hear this exchange at the start of Horses of God (Les chevaux de Dieu). You’ll hear it again near film’s end, when Yachine will take part in an orchestrated set of suicide bombings. As narrative device, the conversation is chilling, a reference to the real life attack on which Nabil Ayouch’s film is based, when, a decade ago, 12 young men set off bombs in five locations in Casablanca, killing 45 people within minutes.
The two versions of the exchange emphasize the elusiveness of the future Yachine might want to imagine, whether it involves the girl he wants, left behind and thinking of him, or, as his brother Hamid (Abdelilah Rachid) has it, the abstract notion of multiple virgins, available in exchange for his action. The black screen allows you to wonder in the abstract, about who believes, or wants to believe, either future. The second version, showing the young men’s faces in firelight, as they try to sleep the night before the attack, no longer abstract, but visible, the night to come a result of their pasts.
Yachine’s journey in the complex, evocative, and haunting Horses of God—screening at at Film Forum in New York through 27 May—begins in Sidi Moumen, a shantytown outside of Casablanca. Here he sees only horizons of loss and regret, from which he sees no escape. Here children play soccer in hot dirt lots and go home to poverty and hopelessness.
As young boys, Yachine (played by Said El Alami as a ten-year-old) and his best friend Nabil (who will be played by Hamza Souidek as a teenager) resist the abuses of local bullies and admire Hamid (Achraf Afir), at once tough, protective, and punishing. At home, Hamid and Yachine hear stories of their older brother Said’s exploits in war, while their mother distracts herself with soap operas on TV and their father recedes into an early old age. Neither brother sees the possibility of change, only more of the same.
When the teenaged Hamid graduates from kids’ crimes to drug dealing and lands in jail, Yachine faces impossible decisions: will he continue to sell oranges, as Hamid has instructed him (so that at least one brother is not likely to be arrested or killed), will he work at a local garage with Nabil or will he find another way to act out his masculine identity, his obligation to support and bring honor to his family?
None of these options are easy, all are framed by poverty and immobility—this even as the camera frequently swoops over the shantytown, revealing the many, similarly broken buildings or children and young people making their way through narrow, endless but also ever limited streets. These shots are breathtaking, simultaneously heartbreaking and gorgeous.
As suggested by such camerawork, Yachine often appears to be swept along by events, some accidental, some emerging out of bad options, and some overwhelmingly desperate. He means to protect Nabil, much as his brother means to protect him, and yet when the boys are recruited by the mullahs, with offers of community and a structure of faith and advancement, you see repeated images of confinement, from prayer sessions in small spaces to long shots showing how small the group looks from above.
The cell seems a safe haven, a place where the boys might seek one another and especially, an identity that makes them feel special. In a town where a trip to the market constitutes an outing, the promise of movement—to the city, however briefly, or to another world, after death—seems the best they might hope for.
This even as Yachine keeps his eyes open for the girl Ghislaine, the reflection of his future that will never be. She appears momentarily throughout the film, smiling in a window far above him, as he gazes up from the street, across another street, pulled away by a companion yet looking back over her shoulder, on the pavement right next to him, but watched over and distant even as he might yearn to touch her.
That the girl who hardly speaks to him, who still shows him affection, comes to represent so much and so little at the same time underscores the paradox at the center of Yachine’s existence and also at the center of his desire to escape that existence. That he can imagine no other way to reach her, or to hope she will remember him, apart from utter destruction, makes clear as well that his jihad is not born of faith in Islam so much as hope for another world.