Inspired by five suicide bombings that took place on the same day in Casablanca on May 16, 2003, Nabil Ayouch's Horses of God allows us see how young suicide bombers—“horses of God,” as the man in charge of their mission calls them—might deserve our pity. When we first glimpse sensitive Yachine (Abdelhakim Rachid), his charismatic big brother, Hamid (Abdelilah Rachid), and his vulnerable friend, Nabil (Hamza Souidek), they're more or less raising themselves and each other in Sidi Moumen, a slum just outside Casablanca. Too poor for school, they pass the time playing soccer, shooting pool, getting high, and scrambling to make a little money. The cash mostly makes it home to their beleaguered mothers, who do their best to support fatherless families (Hamid and Yachine's father is at home but incapacitated, while Nabil's is out of the picture) in a harshly paternalistic culture. The boys may seem free compared to their mothers, but it's the freedom of an unchained dog in a fenced-in junkyard.
The camera follows these skinny young men as they roam all over Sidi Moumen, long tracking shots—many of them aerial—permitting our intimate acquaintance with the neighborhood that constitutes their universe. Even when they're outside they usually feel trapped, hemmed in by the tin-roofed shanties that crowd either side of nearly every path. The taxis that appear now and then to take people to Casablanca are emissaries from a world that's far outside the boys' reach and imagining, though it's clearly visible from the field where they play soccer. The narrowness of their options is made painfully clear when a teenage Yachine complains that he's tired of selling oranges for a boss who barely pays him and his brother insists that he must keep the job. Sure, there's more money in doing the unspecified “errands” that keep him busy, Hamid says, but there's more risk in it too, and if they both got caught, what would become of their mother?
The boys are also victimized by the homophobia and sexual violence that are the flip side of their culture's misogyny. When Yachine watches young Nabil, a pretty boy who's often eyed by other men, get raped by Hamid after passing out at a wedding, or when Nabil watches a handful of men surround his mother and threaten to stone her for prostitution, their frozen postures betray their inability to protect the people they love.
Somber music, slow pans, and a predominantly dark color palette create a symphonic sense of tragedy as we watch the boys grow up. The boys' benighted status is made literal by the darkness they inhabit: Though the Moroccan sun never seems to stop shining, the film is set mostly in cramped, windowless spaces—especially after Hamid comes home from prison and leads Yachine, Nabil, and their friend, Fouad (Ahmed El Idrissi Amrani), into the world of the zealots, where they spend most of their time praying, watching grainy videos, or listening to smooth-talking men in skullcaps spout propaganda about “the imperialist-Zionist conspiracy” or praise the glories of martyrdom. When they finally get driven to a beautiful hillside with trees and a creek running through it, these young men are poignantly joyful. They may have been brought there to learn how to immolate themselves, but that doesn't keep them from having some fun, splashing each other in the stream like the boys they still are, but almost never get to be.
The tragedy is that their youth is so rarely a source of that kind of innocent joy. Instead, it's their Achilles' heel, a weakness that makes them easy prey for men—and sometimes other boys—on the prowl. The first of many men who exploits them, Ba'Moussa, earns their hatred (and ours) for stealing their labor while treating them with bullying contempt. But he turns out to be just the warm-up act for the real villains, the jihadi zealots who steal the boys' lives. Hamid, Yachine, Habil, and Fouad all seem to buy into their vision of redemption through martyrdom, after years of inculcation, though their transformation is presented not as an epiphany, but as a long process of blind indoctrination. Fed by boyish longings like the desire to impress a girl, it's grounded in the same thinly veiled threats of violence and insistence on unquestioning obedience to male authority as the rest of their lives have been. They never actually choose to become terrorists; they're led to that point in a series of well-rehearsed steps and then told they must follow through or be killed for refusing. As the camera lingers on the revered leader who issued the order after he bids them goodbye, his coolly appraising gaze undercuts all his unctuous talk about brotherly love and respect. In the end, these poor doomed young men are just so many pack horses.