Homosexuality is outlawed in Morocco, but young men walking down the street holding hands in friendship is a common sight. Hiding from the law and the gaze of neighbors (though not always family) are boys like the teenage Abdellah (Said Mrini), who gets talked into hurried outdoor trysts by older men who show him little affection after, or even during, the deed.
After one such encounter, Abdellah steals for himself a rare moment of solitude, picking the petals off a flower: “He loves me, he loves me not.” The impossibility of such a love haunts the coming-of-age drama Salvation Army, writer-turned-filmmaker Abdellah Taïa’s lovely and elliptical adaptation of his autobiographical novel about growing up gay, effeminate, and powerless in Morocco.
Though the film is full of culturally revealing moments, like Abdellah helping his much older brother Slimane (Amine Ennaji) wash his hair by pouring a teapot full of heated water over his head in the sink, it’s a highly idiosyncratic self-portrait — a fine precedent set by one of cinema’s first gay Arab protagonists. Abdellah’s growing pains include an incestuous crush on Slimane and an uneasy alliance over his taunting mother with his wife-battering but homosexuality-tolerating father.
Salvation and real love must await Abdellah, but where? Not in Geneva, where post-colonial realities complicate another bad romance, this time with an out-and-proud Swiss national. Despite stilted camerawork often locked in the medium shot, Salvation Army is a touching ode to the freedom to finally be who we want to be — if we can ever find where we belong.