Film Review: Horses of God

Engrossing, realistic study of a Moroccan slum and how it becomes a breeding ground for young terrorists.

Powerfully narrated and convincingly acted without talking down to any of its characters, Horses of God takes the viewer inside an immense Moroccan slum and describes the no-future lives of its inhabitants; very gradually it gets around to showing how fundamentalist recruiters entrenched themselves there after 9/11 and used it as a hunting ground for terrorists and suicide bombers. It ranks alongside Tunisian director Nouri Bouzid’s Making of for its insights on the subject. Though ultimately based on real events, the film avoids a documentary feeling, with director Nabil Ayouch (Whatever Lola Wants) turning in an even-handed but heartfelt work that should make inroads in art-house markets.

There is a kind of brutal poetry in Ayouch’s depiction of the harsh childhood of Yachine (Abdelhakim Rachid) and his inseparable pal Nabil (Hamza Souidek), under the protective fists of Yachine’s older 13-year-old brother Hamid. Soccer games turn into life-threatening fights, weddings into drunken revels, and the string of insults and obscenities hurled at them by parents and grown-ups serves to toughen them up for the hopeless disenfranchisement of adulthood. Growing up, the violent Hamid (Abdelilah Rachid) is thrown into prison for two years; when he gets out, he’s changed into a glassy-eyed fundamentalist, whose mild manners are more preoccupying than his previous violence.

Jamal Belmahi’s screenplay, based on Mahi Binebine’s novelization of five simultaneous terrorist explosions in Casablanca on May 16, 2003, uses current events—the death of King Hassan II, the attack on the World Trade Center—to explain how dwellers in the Sidi Moumen slum slowly turned towards keeping women at home and tolerating, when not embracing, the rise of fundamentalism. Not everyone buys into the bearded folks’ preaching that “supporting Al Qaeda is a religious duty,” but the film shows how insidiously the fundamentalist cell takes over the role of the police in protecting people, aiding the poor and even absolving murder, when one of their own is involved.

And yet, this is less a film about terrorists than an intimate portrait of boys growing up in a toxic environment. All the non-pro actors turn in natural performances, but the dark, brooding Rachid gets under the skin in the main role. Tech work is high-quality throughout, with Hichame Alaouie’s cinematography adding lyric notes to the squalor and Malvina Meinier’s score building towards the inevitable, heart-wrenching climax in Casablanca.  
—The Hollywood Reporter

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