Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 18, 2016 5:08 pm 
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Beginning a series of reviews of this year's Film Society of Lincoln Center/UniFrance Rendez-Vous with French Cinama


An Moroccan immigrant mother meets the challenge of French culture

While Jacques Audiard's Dheepan, about the dramatic dangers and cultural struggles of Tamil refugees in Paris, won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, Philippe Faucon's Fatima, closer to a number of French films about immigrants, quietly explores the day-to-day life of an Moroccan mother in Lyons with two school-age daughters. The younger, 15-year-old Souad (Kenza-Noah Aiche), is acting out and doing badly; the older, 18-year-od Nesrine (Zita Hanrot), is simply terrified by the linguistic and intellectual challenges of the start of a pre-med program. Meanwhile, their mom, Fatima (Soria Zeroual), funds them by working as a housecleaner. We see Fatima patiently support her daughters even when they express contempt for her humble role. The movie plays down the underlying theme: Fatima is Fatima Elayoubi, who taught herself French and wrote a book about her experiences.

Faucom's film, his eighth feature, meanders quietly, seeking a sense of the quotidian, shifting focus from one daughter to the other and to the mother. The girls speak French to mom and mom replies in Moroccan dialect. The girls ward off young Arab boys who want to date them; the older finally gives in and spends time with a playful boy. Fatima uncomplainingly sells her gold jewelry to raise money and endures daily humiliations. The father (Chawki Amari), an amiable man who has worked in construction and is fluent in French, meets regularly with the younger daughter.

Various incidents show what the three women have to contend with. A landlady suddenly finds she doesn't have the key to an apartment she's renting, when she sees Nesrine's dark skin and Fatima's head scarf. A rich women Fatima comes to clean for seems to have purposely left money in her son's jeans to be washed to see if she will pocket it. When Fatima starts a friendly conversation with another mom at her daughter's school the lady says she's in hurry and dashes off. There is trouble with fellow North Africans, as when a woman complains that one of the girls has not greeted her on the bus.

Fatima understands French, but is obviously shy and embarrassed about using it. When Souad mocks it, she points out to her that in the village, people laugh at her (Souad's) Arabic. Meanwhile, we begin to see Fatima working at her own studies. After a fall down a staircase that leaves her in too much pain to go back to work after several months' leave, despite no broken bones or torn ligaments, she begins putting together odd sentences in literary Arabic that she writes in a notebook. They are evidently the beginning of what was to become her book, Prière à la lune. She shares her writings with an Arab woman doctor she sees regularly due to her injuries.

The film engages as authentic because it is low-keyed. It doesn't spell out the real Fatima Elayoubi's story in detail, and stops before her recognition as a writer of a book that depicts the travails of so many North African women who came to France in the Eighties and lived an invisible life, victimized by prejudice and hampered by lack of education and poor French. (You can find more about Fatima in a French column on the website À la rencontre de l'autre, and one from Glamour. Faucon was born and grew up in Morocco and Algeria, and his films have often dealt with North African themes.

Fatima, 78 mins., debuted at Cannes Directors Fortnight 20 May 2015 and five other festivals followed, with, theatrical release in Belgium and France 7 Oct. 2015. In France it received the rave reviews (AlloCiné press rating 4.4/24), and later won the Louis Delluc Prize (which kicks off the French awards season) for Best French Film and it received four César nominations including Best Film, for which it won the award. It was reviewed at Cannes by Justin Chang of Variety and Leslie Felperin of Hollywood Reporter. It was screened for this review as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema (Film Society of Lincoln Center and UniFrance) Feb. 2016. Feb 19 it was announced that Kino Lorber had acquired the film for US distribution.

US theatrical release begins tomorrow, 29 August 2016, in New York (Film Society of Lincoln Center, Howard Gilman Theater).

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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