by Fabien Lemercier
- Buoyed by an excellent script, this first full-length film by Meryem Benm’Barek is a thrilling feminist study, dissecting the double standards that divide Moroccan society
In Morocco, article 490 of the country’s penal code sanctions prison sentences ranging from one month to one year for sexual relations taking place outside of any marriage. It is around this sword of Damocles that the many-layered story of Sofia [+see also:
interview: Meryem Benm'Barek
film profile] unfolds, the first full-length film by Meryem Benm’Barek, screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the 71st Cannes Film Festival. In the first instance, the audience is catapulted into the wake of a young woman who is panicked by the unexpected birth of her baby, following her ongoing refusal to accept that she’s pregnant, and who now is forced to move quickly and make contact with the child’s father or else risk arrest. But as the story progresses, the film reveals itself to be far more than it first seems, deftly delivering a sociological analysis of significant scope.
"Your parents are destroyed. You’ve humiliated them ". At the break of day, there’s no avoiding the guilt. For Sofia (Maha Alemi), 20 years old, this is a nightmare which started the day before with stomach pains during a family meal. Her medical student cousin, Lena (Sarah Perles) very quickly and discretely realises what’s going on: Sofia is in labour. Hiding this fact from the young woman’s parents (Nadia Niazi and Faouzi Bensaïdi) and from her own mother Leila (Lubna Azabal), Lena takes Sofia under her wing and pulls some strings at the local hospital where the birth then takes place. In addition to the incessant calls and messages from Sofia’s worried family to whom they are forced to lie, there is a problem of epic proportions which must be resolved in the next 24 hours: Sofia must to be married to stay on the right side of the law. Hardly out of hospital - where they’re not allowed to remain - the two girls venture out into the night (a newborn wailing in their arms) and into the very poor district of Derb Sultan. They’re searching for Omar (Hamza Khafif), who Sofia confirms is the baby’s father and who is a perfect stranger to all of her family (who are far better off financially), but who will eventually enter the fray when Sofia’s secret is revealed. At which point the priority is defending Sofia’s honour, finding a solution, an arrangement which suits all parties, and which allows her family to save face. But there are more surprises in store from this excellent, script-writer-director…
The film is divided into three discernible rhythms; it starts out at breakneck pace in the heat of the action (and a birth that’s a touch speedy by first-child standards), where vital decisions must be made with urgency; then, a series of confrontations between the families of the would-be future spouses and a trip to the local police station, before the story finally returns to focus on Sofia’s entourage. As the film progresses, its real purpose becomes clear: to paint a picture of class structure in Moroccan society and the hypocrisy which surrounds it. The end result is a finely drawn portrait, achieved through understated yet effective direction, and although the conclusion is somewhat superficial, with many questions left unanswered regarding Sofia’s personality (who turns out to be more complex than we first thought), the overall film doesn’t really suffer for it.
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