With Islamophobia on the rise in Western Europe — evidenced by the “burqini” ban that recently scandalized the beaches of France — the timing couldn’t be better for “Layla M.,” an astute detailing of a Muslim woman’s radicalization in Amsterdam and beyond. There’s a contrived, programmatic quality to watching Layla, a righteous firebrand of Moroccan descent, follow her ideals to the edge of the cliff, but co-writer/director Mijke de Jong and her lead actor, Nora El Koussour, work hard to complicate her journey, both internally and externally. They arrive at a plausible case study in terror recruitment, linked in no small part to Western policies of discrimination and harassment. But they also create a fully realized character whose passion has no home in a world dominated by men.
Premiering in the Platform competition section at the Toronto Film Festival, “Layla M.” may have special resonance in the Netherlands, a country plagued by ethnic and religious tension, but its feminist kick should be felt abroad, too. Surely many opinionated women will recognize themselves in Layla, a young woman who’s not afraid to mix it up a little. From the opening scene, where she argues a bad call against her father’s soccer team, Layla throws herself into volatile situations with the confidence of someone who knows what’s right — or at least thinks she knows what’s right. De Jong and her cinematographer, Danny Elsen, are wise to attach themselves to her hip, trusting that the audience will follow her charisma and abiding sense of justice to the darkest of places.
Though her middle-class father (Mohammed Azzay) and mother (Esma Abouzahra) urge her to focus on her promising academic ambitions, Layla finds herself drawn to the fringes of Islamic practice. Frustrated by her family’s apathy over a burqa ban and other threats to religious freedom, she devotes more of her time to studying the Quran, participating in demonstrations, and engaging with jihadists online and in covert gatherings. Her radicalization is like a vicious cycle: The further she goes, the more resistance she gets from her parents and the authorities, which inspires her to rebel all the more.
Not long after meeting Abdel (Ilias Addab), another young radical committed to the cause, Layla gets married, drops out of school, and travels with her husband to Amman, Jordan, where she hopes to lead a simple, austere life in line with Islamic teachings. What she finds, instead, is a severely patriarchal society that distances her from Abdel and violates her intrinsic need to have control over her own destiny.
De Jong could punish Layla for her naiveté, as if she were just a social activist gone terribly amiss, but “Layla M.” is really about an idealist who’s trying to find a belief system worthy of her values. She doesn’t find it in Amsterdam, where Islam is treated with hostility and condescension, and she doesn’t find it in Amman, either, where her voice is cruelly stifled. Like many college radicals, Layla is searching for a community where she can live without compromise, and de Jong succeeds most in making sense of every decision that brings her down this wayward path.
As Layla and Abdel, El Koussour and Addab share a gentle chemistry that curdles into romantic tragedy. “Layla M.” is never better than in the brief stretch where the newlyweds make their way from the Netherlands to Jordan, two lovers-on-the-lam who court danger, but also experience true moments of intimacy and joy. If de Jong were interested merely in the step-by-step process of creating a homegrown terrorist, “Layla M.” would play too much like a clunky polemic, with none of the spontaneity of real life. But in connecting with Layla’s innate goodness and her determination to find a system worthy of her values, the film laments the world that perverts them.