Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jun 11, 2024 1:51 pm 
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Beasts of Maghreb

This is a film that could come right out of a Paul Bowles novel, with an ominous, extended apocalyptic twist. It's also better than simply that, because its Moroccan director - in her very promising debut - enters so deeply into local atmosphere. Into strangeness, religiosity, and a questioning of the nature of things. The film qualifies as a kind of metaphysical science fiction. There is some extraordinary staging of events. And so there must be, because in this heightened Morocco, aliens have come and live invisibly in a kind of middle world. Animals -- birds, dogs, sheep. A dog that has become a kind of familiar for a young woman seems at one point to turn into a bird when she leaves him behind. And then there are many birds and we may wonder who and what they are.

The human protagonist is Itto (Oumaïma Barid), a pregnant young woman with austere, elongated features and far-of eyes. When her well-born husband Amine (Mehdi Dehbi) sets off with his family from their provincial seat to the town of Khourigba, because she feels they look down on her because of her impoverished origins she asks him to go with them and let her follow on her own later.

This riskily independent choice begins a tormented, mystical, frightening journey into the unknown. The wilder regions of Morocco are perfectly suited for filming such a terrifying, lunar journey. No special effects needed, but filmmaker Sofia Alaoui and her crew make everything magical. The score by Amine Bouhafa is superb and does just what it needs to every time. The cinematography of Noé Bach is also fine.

Animals perform remarkably well. Early on, when a disturbing storm (also a supernatural one, by the film's conventions that we instantly accept) has put all the animals into an uproar, Itto befriends a dark, handsome dog who seems the only calm creature, who when she leaves him behind to take off in a motorized cart, seems to turn into a bird in order to follow her. Later she has a dialogue with a sheep, who comes to her tenderly, like a pet, and who she later says she has dreamed is her mother.

Stormy skies and wild winds threaten. News warns that different beings are around. The protagonist herself is different. When Itto meets Fouad (Fouad Oughaou), the man who will accompany her, until he doesn't, he turns out to be Amazigh ("Berber") too and they speak some words of the Shilha language that prove it.

In Jordan Mintzer's Hollywood Reporter review he explains Alaoui's strategy by saying she "doesn’t turn the global catastrophe scenario on its head as much as [flip] it sideways." He says it winds up being more like Terrence Malick than Roland Emmerich. The focus on class, religion, and women's status in today's Morocco adds an unconventional and yet timely note. Alaoui has transcended genre and convention in quite her own way while at the same time as Jessica Kiang says in her Variety review, this film captures something potentially universal--"theeerie experience that is suddenly finding yourself startlingly alone during a time of shared global panic." Alone in an inhospitable rural area without cellphone service.

While the people and land of Morocco are beautiful, both can take on an off-putting, inhospitable quality, as Paul Bowles often captures in his novels and stories. Or, since it is eminently cinematic, Itto's adventure could be an episode in Bertolucci's film adaptation of Bowles' The Sheltering Sky, which still holds up rather well today, 34 years after it came out.

This time there is no white man out of his element, but the devout Itto, in a remote hotel, is not welcome, and is deemed very strange to be young, pregnant and traveling by herself (and not foreign).

Animalia grew out of a much admired short film and may seem longer on atmosphere than story; there is a slight hiatus after the journey ends. Still, after the protagonist arrives at her husband's family's provincial seat there is the film's grandest, most memorable, climactic sequence: a public prayer that everyone, including many who may have come from elsewhere, attends. It spills out of the mosque onto the street, and the men must separate from the women in the traditional way. But Itto eventually finds it unbearable to have Amine taken away from her again thus, though he goes willingly.

There is a remarkable use of locations, which include the distinctively ornate rooms of Amine's family house in town; a sprawling men's cafe that looks half like a boudoir or a mosque interior; and the jammed public prayer sequence, a carefully edited blending of order and chaos. Closeups are used at times very effectively to create an effect of strangeness and over-intensity. While there are keen individual observations, over all this as Kiang says "imagines humankind getting a fleeting glimpse at the interconnectedness of all living things" though such glimpses may only be granted to a species such as ours " that is on its way out, as a parting gift." Bowles would like the pessimism and austerity of that idea.

Sofia Alaoui is clearly a filmmaker with gifts for the world that are various and rich.

Animalia, 90 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 20, 2023, also showing at Hong Kong, Istanbul, Taipei, San Francisco and a dozen other festivals including Karlovy Vary, Melbourne, Vancouver, and London BFI. French theatrical release Aug. 9, 2023, AlloCiné press rating 3.6 (72%). It was screened for this review at Cinema Village Jun. 11, 2024.


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