Anyone seeking to establish an incubator for suicide bombers could hardly improve on Sidi Moumen, a slum on the fringe of Casablanca. As depicted in Horses of God, the neighborhood is a place of crushing poverty, rampant hostility and exceptionally limited options.
Those burdens alone, of course, were not enough to motivate the 12 bombers who attacked sites in the nearby city in May 2003, killing 33 people as well as themselves. It took years to sculpt the men who attacked such targets as a Spanish restaurant and a Jewish community center, which is why director Nabil Ayouch begins his tale in 1994, when the younger of the central characters is just 10.
The boy (Abdelhakim Rachid) calls himself Yachine after the Russian goalie he idolizes, and plays soccer on a rutted dirt lot. The first time we see him in action, the match deteriorates into a rumble. Arriving to protect his brother, as he will again and again, is 13-year-old Hamid (Abdelilah Rachid).
Yachine and Hamid live with their mother, their senile father and an older brother who seems to be autistic. That makes Hamid the man of the house. He provides by running errands for drug dealers, and brings home food, money and perfume for mama. Hamid refuses to allow Yachine into the trade, setting him up instead in the much less lucrative business of peddling oranges. (There is no mention of school.)
When the story jumps five years into the future, Hamid is a major dealer. A foolish confrontation with corrupt cops sends him to jail, leaving Yachine to make his own way. A local thug steals the kid's orange-selling gig, but Yachine's best friend, Nabil (Hamza Souidek), gets him a job as a moped mechanic.
Nabil is a pretty boy who attracts the unwanted attention of some older men. One such incident ends violently, leaving Yachine and Nabil at risk. Enter, once again, Hamid, recently released from prison. He cleans up the mess, with help from the new friends he made behind bars. They are radical jihadists.
Yachine, Nabil and two other friends are recruited, and begin their indoctrination. The teachings are all based on the imam's interpretation of the Koran, but there's also an unstated message: The solemn bearded men who saved Yachine and Nabil from the police could at any time reveal what they know.
Horses of God, which takes its title from an exhortation to jihadists to strive for Allah, was inspired by Mahi Binebine's novel, The Stars of Sidi Moumen, based on real events. But the director also drew on his own experiences in Sidi Moumen, where he made short documentaries. He simulates such a film here, using handheld camera and a nonprofessional (yet entirely persuasive) cast. But he punctuates the intimate, naturalistic mode with occasional aerial views of the sprawling slum.
Any drama about Islamic suicide bombers will be compared to Hany Abu Assad's 2005 masterpiece, Paradise Now, a movie that's more complex in structure and tone than Horses of God. The contrast reflects, in part, the ways that Morocco differs from the Palestinian territories.
Although Ayouch interjects political events from the outside world — including the 1999 death of King Hassan II and the 9/11 attacks — Sidi Moumen feels detached from them. When the young men embark on their murderous mission, it's the first time they've ever left the shantytown that's been their entire world. They've finally been offered an opportunity, but it's perhaps the only one more bleak than continuing to live in Sidi Moumen.