Recounting its based-on-true-events tale with an acute sociological eye, Horses Of God presents a fictionalized account of the young men who, on May 16, 2003, committed suicide-bombing atrocities throughout Casablanca. By the end, 45 lives had been claimed (including those of the perpetrators), but Nabil Ayouch’s film is ultimately less interested in the planning and execution of that plot than the path that led the suicide bombers to their fate. Ayouch begins his story in 1994 in the slum of Sidi Moumen, where young Yachine stands up for his friend Nabil—often accused of being a “faggot” by local kids—and where both are defended by Yachine’s older brother, Hamid, a cocky troublemaker who curries favor with his mother by bringing her money and perfume procured through less-than-legal means. The more timid Yachine looks up to Hamid, at least until a wedding celebration in which the latter, in front of cheering boys, suddenly and violently rapes Nabil—an act that director Ayouch intercuts with images of Nabil’s prostitute mother singing for the gathering’s crowd.
The juxtaposition of Nabil’s assault and his mom’s performance is central to Horses Of God’s portrait of Islam’s culture of domination. Jumping forward in time, the film finds an older, drug-dealing Hamid (Abdelilah Rachid) being thrown in jail for throwing a rock at a cop, only to emerge two years later a devout Muslim who cares more for his mosque friends than his family. Hamid’s transformation strikes Yachine (Abdelhakim Rachi) as distasteful, but given the limited financial opportunities afforded by their destitute hometown—and the harassment Yachine suffers, courtesy of a man who wants to control the area’s orange-selling operations—its appeal grows. And once an accidental murder compels Yachine and Nabil (Hamza Souidek) to seek Hamid and his religious friends’ help, they soon find themselves increasingly enthrall to the anti-Semitic, anti-Western rhetoric of clerics who, post-9/11, want to wage war in defense of Islam.
Ayouch shoots this material with understated formal precision, expressing his characters’ youthful exuberance and volatile circumstances through unstable camerawork that slowly becomes more measured and steady as they embrace their holy-war mission and its intolerant ethos. Shrewder still is Ayouch’s portrait of the forces which compel his characters to commit their heinous acts. While monetary needs certainly play a part in Harmid, Yachine, and Nabil’s desire to detonate themselves in the name of Allah, Horses Of God primarily argues that its protagonists—and men like them—take to terrorism because the culture in which they exist principally prizes strength, and exerting control over others through intimidation and violence. The fact that the reality-based material’s outcome is preordained winds up negating any significant suspense. Yet, aided by three-dimensional performances that exude a convincing mixture of bitterness, selfishness, desperation, and hate, Ayouch film casts a sharp gaze on tragedy, and the larger socio-economic issues that beget fanaticism.