Set in a slum on the outskirts of Casablanca, Horses of God (Les Chevaux de Dieu, 2012) is a powerful drama based on the events leading up to the Moroccan suicide bomb attacks of 16 May, 2003. The film’s director, Nabil Ayouch, has crafted an original and moving adaptation of Mahi Binebine’s novel The Stars of Sidi Moumen, mixing social realism with a more ambitious and epic grandeur. There are three main characters who we first meet as children, playing football. Yachine is the goalie, Nabil is his closest friend and Hamid is his tough brother who protects him even though he criticises Yachine’s close relationship to Nabil.
The boys reside at home with their mother, elderly father and disturbed brother. Hamid brings in money from his various illicit activities and is always in trouble with the police, whereas Yachine is a good boy, selling oranges in the market though he would like to step up to drug dealing given half the chance. Hamid is inevitably sent to jail and when he returns years later it is as a convert to Islam.
The central strength of Horses of God lies primarily in the performances of the adult characters. Adbelhakim Rachid plays Yachine with a glowering intensity, whilst Abdelilah Rachid is fantastic as Hamid, a man who finds inner peace because of his conversion but is increasingly plagued by doubts. Also impressive is the film’s rich aesthetic style, utilised to the maximum by Ayouch. The texture of slum life is conveyed on a day to day basis, but there are also a series of sweeping shots which give you a sense of the scale of the slum and its proximity to a new chemical factory, which offers no job prospects to the brothers.
Significantly, the suicide bombers aren’t demonised in the film. Their guiding Imam is charismatic and gently spoken, and the conversion of the cadre is convincing. After all, these are boys with very little to look forward to – their futures, kneecapped by poverty and hopelessness, are given direction and meaning by the act of Jihad.
We may have seen a similar journey in the same Middle Eastern context in Hany Abu Assad’s Paradise Now (2005), but Ayouch’s Horses of God has a much broader scope. This is a fine cinematic contribution to understanding a region that now, more than ever in the wake of the Arab Spring, could do with some compassionate depiction.
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