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IFI French Film Festival 2018 Review - SOFIA

sofia 2018 film review
A Moroccan girl faces serious consequences when she gives birth out of wedlock.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Meryem Benm'Barek-Aloïsi

Starring: Maha Alemi, Lubna Azabal, Sarah Perles, Faouzi Bensaïdi

sofia 2018 film poster


Several recent movies from the Middle East and North Africa have highlighted the sexual inequality inherent in the region - Saudi Arabia's Wadjda; Iran's Ava, Inversion and Tehran Taboo; Israel's In Between, to name but a few - and initially writer/director Meryem Benm'Barek-Aloïsi's feature debut, Sofia, seems like yet another critique of Islam's intrusion into how women live their lives and what they choose to do with their bodies. As the story progresses, we find it's a far more complex study of both Morocco's conservative tradition and its new embracing of western style capitalism.

sofia 2018 film review

During a family get-together, teenager Sofia (Maha Alemi) begins to experience intense stomach pains. She puts it down to eating something that disagreed with her, but her cousin, Lena (Sarah Perles), a medical student, realises the true cause of Sofia's discomfort - she's about to go into labour.

This would be a stressful scenario for a teenager in any part of the world, but in Morocco, sex outside of wedlock is a crime that carries a punishment of up to a year in prison. Lena sneaks the expectant mother into the hospital she interns at, and with the cooperation of a sympathetic young doctor, Sofia is able to give birth safely. However, in this highly patriarchal society, she is required to present the papers of her 'husband'. When asked who the father is, Sofia claims it's a young man named Omar (Hamza Khafif), who once worked alongside her at a call centre.

sofia 2018 film review

When confronted, Omar denies ever having slept with Sofia, and when the new mother's parents learn their daughter has just given birth, they set Omar an ultimatum - he can marry Sofia and thus avoid jail time for both himself and his 'wife', or they will claim he raped the girl. With no better option, Omar chooses the former.

With this development, Benm'Barek-Aloïsi's film veers from a look at how men wield their power over women to a story of how the upper classes exercise similar control over the lower classes. Sofia's parents are very much 'new money', social climbers who have struck a property deal with her aunt and her French husband that is now in jeopardy of collapsing if the truth about Sofia's parental status emerges. While Sofia is a victim of Moroccan tradition, Omar is equally a casualty of its modernity, both sacrificing their individual freedoms to appease the morals of an older generation. Like Steve McQueen did with the recent Widows, Benm'Barek-Aloïsi employs a sequence involving a car ride from Omar's poor inner city neighbourhood to Sofia's well-manicured suburb as a means of illustrating the disparity of wealth within a relatively small geographical area.

sofia 2018 film review

While both Omar and Sofia are victims here, the film doesn't simply ask us to sympathise with them, as they are both getting something out of their respective situations - Omar lands a job he would previously have been rejected from, while Sofia bags a husband and father for her child, convinced he will come around in time. If there's a hero in this bleak tale, it's Lena, whose educated, secular beliefs, humanitarian outlook and unwillingness to accept established gender norms represent a possible brighter future for Morocco's youth, be they male or female.


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