This is the story of a man forever stuck between worlds: men and women, Morocco and Europe, rich and poor. The movie is based on an autobiographical novel by Abdellah Taïa and recounts the author’s adolescence in a small town in Morocco, followed by his emigration to Switzerland.
It’s a beautiful and fascinating look at conservative Muslim North Africa: a place where men and women are very much segregated, where public homosexuality does not belong but single men can still find action with a fifteen-year-old boy if they know how to look. Teen Abdellah is very much a cypher: he’s very stoic, hardly ever cracks a smile, quietly going through the motions: running errands, cleaning the house, meeting adult men for trysts… It’s not clear what he gets out of it: they’re never shown giving him money or gifts, except for a fresh watermelon from the fruit merchant, just once. Abdellah seems very disconnected both from his emotions and his sexuality, and though I appreciate that this is probably true to the book, I’m not sure it works in a purely visual medium.
Fast forward 10 years and Abdellah has moved to a pretty touristy seaside town, still in Morocco, and shacked up with an older, rich Swiss gentleman. Though he’s taken up speaking French and has his eye on Western culture, it’s clear his sugar saddy does not see him as an equal and hasn’t cared to integrate at all in Moroccan society, not even speaking a word of Arabic. The locals do still call Abdellah “brother” and don’t mind that he’s a kept boy, but again it means he doesn’t quite belong in either world, and the space he occupies is a lonely one with no room for peers.
Four months later Abdellah has arrived in Geneva to begin his studies. Unfortunately he has arrived early and his grant doesn’t kick in for another month, so he has no money and no place to stay. After wandering around the university for a bit, he runs into his ex-sugar daddy. It seems their breakup was not a friendly one, and they have a very bitter argument. Abdellah gets called a heartless whore but doesn’t let it get to him, proudly claiming he’s free, both of Morocco and of his ex.
Free or not, though, he still has no place to stay. Happening upon a Salvation Army homeless shelter, he decides this is as good a place as any. His new roommate is another Moroccan man who offers to sing a song while sharing a snack; Abdellah chooses what I assume is a traditional Moroccan song and as the roommate sings, Abdellah starts crying.
Cut to credits.
Really, it was that abrupt. I guess it was a deliberate artistic choice, and I’m guessing also that it reflects the novel, but it was extremely jarring and took me out of the story right at the wrong moment (talking to other audience members later, I wasn’t alone).
What I’m getting out of that last scene is that Abdellah isn’t nearly as free of Morocco as he’d like to think he is. He doesn’t have to live by its rules anymore, true, but the culture is still with him, for better or for worse (depending on how much he wants to assimilate in mainstream Swiss society). And we’re left with the unhappy thought that this may be his lot in life: to never really belong anywhere, to always have bits of his past calling to him in the present, clouding his future.
Or that’s what I’m getting out of the film, anyway. I can’t be sure because, as I said, it’s hard to get into Abdellah’s head. I found the look at Moroccan life fascinating, but without a personal connection to ground it, I felt as detached from most of the story as Abdellah himself. Maybe this is the kind of story that works better as a book.