In her promising debut feature, AnimaliaMoroccan writer-director Sofia Alaoui doesn’t turn the global catastrophe scenario on its head as much as she flips it sideways.
The film, which makes its world premiere in Sundance, starts off on familiar enough ground, following a very pregnant young woman, Itto (photogenic newcomer Oumaïma Barid), as she’s stranded from her new husband, Amine (Mehdi Dehbi), while a mysterious supernatural catastrophe occurs right outside their country estate.
The Bottom Line
Subverts the genre in compelling ways.
But if Animalia begins like small-scale Roland Emmerich, it ends up more like Terrence Malick, with Alaoui eschewing your typical action-packed finale and taking things in much more of a mystical direction. This, along with her keen commentary on religion, social class and the place of women in contemporary Morocco, could give the film a boost in a marketplace already crowded with lots of doomsday content.
An extension of the director’s 2020 short, So What If the Goats Diewhich won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and France’s César award, Animalia introduces us to Itto, her baby bump sticking out like a sore thumb, as she wanders the the nouveau riche mountainside villa that belongs to her snooty in-laws.
We soon learn that Itto is a Berber girl from a poor rural family, making her marriage to Amine a major point of contention, especially with her ice-cold snooping mother-in-law: Itto may be beautiful and sweet, but her lowly origins render her a black sheep in a place of wealth and prestige.
Before that plotline has time to gestate, a massive storm front sweeps through the valley while Amine and his folks are out on a visit, leaving Itto to fend for herself as things start to fall apart. Desperate to join her husband at any cost, she travels from one remote village to another, across countryside and mountaintop, helped along the way by a fellow Berber, Fouad (Fouad Oughaou), who takes a liking to her.
What exactly is happening around the cloudy, mist-filled lake that Itto and Fouad constantly circumvent is never quite made clear, and Alaoui all too conveniently withholds information from the viewer, knocking out cell phone service and using TV news to fill in the gaps. This, as well as a strange phenomenon that makes animals — dogs and birds, a few ants — behave, well, strangely, feels like boilerplate genre material, and there are times when Animalia doesn’t stray far enough from the norm.
Where it does surprise is in its blending, especially in the third act, of the spiritual and the otherworldly, mixing Muslim prayers with signs of extraterrestrial life, in a transcendental experience where humans and animals and aliens all seem to share some kind of common strain. of the universe. It’s a bold direction to take in a well-worn genre that often heads to the same places, whether they be Spielbergian (the family will somehow survive) or dystopian (they won’t). Alaoui offers up an intriguing alternative: a world-ending disaster that turns into a moment of deep spiritual awakening.
Animalia also uses the guise of genre to explore some of the more troubling facets of Moroccan society, highlighting Itto’s difficult position as a woman from a poor background who strives for better. She’s clearly out of place with Amine’s upper-crust family, who seem to have little patience for a peasant like her. But she’s also out of place when she’s on her own, navigating a world of shepherds and farmers who stare at her like she’s indeed from another planet. (Although Itto is religious she doesn’t wear a headscarf — a sign of her more cosmopolitan status. She also switches easily between Berber, Arabic and French, although avoids speaking Berber to conceal her lower-class background.)
Repressed in more ways than one, Itto is a woman in need of some kind of liberation. And so while most of Morocco huddles in fear of whatever is emanating from the spooky mist hovering just above the lake, she winds up taking full advantage of the situation. Like the possessed men and boys she crosses paths with on the road, who stare at her like they’ve just dropped acid, Itto experiences a powerful vision of something that’s greater than the disparate parts of her own life, and she decides to embrace it. full-on. It may be the end of the world as she knows it, but she feels fine.
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