Thursday, September 11, 2014

Movie Review: Horses of God

Horses of God
Directed by: Nabil Ayouch.
Written by:  Jamal Belmahi  based on the novel by Mahi Binebine.
Starring: Abdelhakim Rachid (Yacine), Abdelilah Rachid (Hamid), Hamza Souidek (Nabil), Ahmed El Idrissi Amrani (Fouad).

Horses of God follows two brothers, as they go from poor kids growing up in the slums of Casablanca to the point where, 10 years later, they both become suicide bombers. The film believably paints their transition – when it starts, they are not religious in any recognizable sense, to the point where they willing die in the name of Allah. It does not turn them into monsters, but instead tracks their gradual progression – and sees them with pity more than anything else.

The film opens with the two brothers Yacine, who wants nothing more than to be a soccer star in goal, and his older brother Hamid, who acts as his brothers protector, and is already a little on the wild side – perhaps a little too violent for his own good. Hamid is already working on the wrong side of the law, and in the segments final moments commits a shocking and violent act. Flash forward 10 years and not much has changed. Hamid (now played by Abdeliah Rachid) is still violent, still protecting his brother, and is still working on the wrong side of the law – and drawing more attention from the police. Yacine (Abdelhakim Rachid – yes, they are real life brothers) still wants to be a soccer star, but the reality of that dream not coming true is starting to sink in. Hamid supports the family with his illegal activities – and is beloved by their mother – and Yacine is bitter that Hamid won’t let him work with him, instead making him sell oranges. But Hamid tells him he cannot do it, because the family cannot afford to have them both locked away if it comes to that. And, of course, it does – as Hamid does something incredibly stupid, and is taken away to prison. Yacine tries his best to support the family – but his mother never feels the same way about him as she did about Hamid – and working as a mechanic, he cannot bring home the same money. When Hamid returns – after two years in prison – a changed man, with new friends, it makes Yacine even bitterer. But when those same friends help Yacine, after he makes a mistake – probably motivated by his failure to act when Hamid did what he did 10 years before – the path for both brothers is set.

Horses of God is in some ways a very subtle film. All three acts in the film basically end with a shocking act of violence. The first act, when the kids are 10, ends with Hamid doing something horrific to Yacine’s friend – while Yacine just sits back and watches, too scared to do anything about it. A similar scenario ends the second act, and this time, Yacine is not afraid to act – but by acting, he allows himself to be drawn into the group that will ultimately lead to his final actions. The movie doesn’t belabor this point – it shows it, and lets the audience make the connection between the two of them. Unlike a film like Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now (also very good), this is a film about suicide bombers where their reasons are never really vocalized – Yacine and Hamid (and their friends) do not have long, philosophical discussions about why they are doing what they’re doing – it all takes place beneath the surface.

But in other ways, Horses of God is not very subtle at all. When the cell that recruits first Hamid then Yacine into their ranks, and sets them on their course, enter the picture the movie beats you over the head again and again with the way these men convince the younger men to become martyrs. Finally, someone like Yacine – who never felt like he belonged anywhere – not at his home (which the film also hammers home a little too often), and not at his job, where he is facing a bleak future. He is in love with a girl, who likes him, but knows he doesn’t have a chance. She is beautiful, and her family sees her as their ticket out of the slum – they just need to fix her up with a proper man, for which Yacine does not qualify. Hamid’s character is not as well defined as Yacine’s – his transformation happens off-screen, and his third act turn towards non-violence rings slightly false.

Yet the two Rachid brothers anchor the film in their believable relationship – even when the film does hit things too hard, or doesn’t provide much motivation for their actions. And director Nabil Ayouch does a mainly fine job of grounding the action, in a most neo-realist style (one note on that – we really didn’t need the overhead shots of the whole slums, nor the intrusion of the score at key moments, which seems to work against the style of the rest of the movie). Horses of God is mainly a strong film however, despite its weaknesses, and an interesting, unique look at these doomed young men – and the violence they cause.

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