Amid ongoing concerns about companies closing factories and outsourcing jobs to maximize profits, “Catch the Wind” offers an unlikely scenario: What if an employee simply followed her job overseas? That idea sounds absurd to everyone but Edith, a textile factory worker who doesn’t think twice about forfeiting her severance, abandoning her home and heading from France to Morocco for a new life. Director Gael Morel shines a light on the appalling labor conditions to come, but “Catch the Wind” isn’t the next “Norma Rae” by any stretch. Instead, it’s a toothless vehicle for the great Sandrine Bonnaire, who plays Edith as a stubborn introvert turned accidental adventuress. The film undergoes a surprising evolution from righteous exposé to picture-postcard travelogue, losing much of its potency in the process.
As her labor union roils at the threat of outsourcing, Edith chooses to keep her head down and continue the punch-clock drudgery of her quality-control job. She lives alone in a working-class port city and doesn’t have much of a relationship with her grown son Jeremy (Elian Bergala), who lives is Paris and remains bitter that she didn’t show up for his civil union (though her reasons have more to do with miscommunication than disapproval). When the HR head at the factory informs her of the factory closing and starts laying out her severance package, Edith shocks her by requesting relocation to Tangiers, despite a massive pay cut and the absence of labor protections.
Once in Morocco, everything goes as poorly as predicted. Edith forfeits her spacious home for a shabby single-room rental run by Mina (Mouna Fettou), a bitter divorcee, and her son Ali (Kamal El Amri), who addresses her with equal parts curiosity and pity. Just getting to her new workplace involves a harrowing journey on foot through construction zones, including a last leg on a Muslim-affiliated transit bus that requires all women to wear head coverings. Instead of a state-of-the-art factory, Edith finds a sweatshop lined with sewing machines so poorly maintained that her workstation occasionally jolts her with an electric shock. Complaining to management has unforeseen consequences, too, because there’s no job security and the system winds up pitting workers against each other instead of the company.
Despite some low points that upend even the marginal, hand-to-mouth existence she’s carved out for herself, Edith starts to warm to her surroundings and experience a quality of life that isn’t connected to money or the workplace. And it’s here that “Catch the Wind” pursues a contradictory agenda: Is it possible to reveal deplorable labor conditions in countries like Morocco while also conceding that a more fulfilling life is achievable, too? That’s a hard sell for Morel to make, because the bliss that creeps into the second half of the film softens the workplace horrors that precede it. Despite all the hardships Edith endures, the end winds up justifying the means.
Still, there’s mystery and nuance to Bonnaire’s performance, which is played close to the vest. In the actress’s reading, Edith doesn’t start out as a courageous woman taking a grand leap; rather, she’s a blinkered conformist who holds her workaday routine above all other aspects of her life. Her decision to leave for Morocco has nothing to do with restlessness — though her loneliness and isolation at home surely play a role — and speaks more to her hope that she can achieve the same sense of normalcy in a different location. It’s Morocco itself that’s the dynamic character in “Catch the Wind,” pressing Edith to adapt to both its challenges and its inviting tenor of life.
Over time, a film about the stress and exploitation of low-wage employees morphs into an escapist getaway to a modest, sun-touched slice of paradise. To that end, Morel and his cinematographer, David Chambille, find the beauty of Tangiers as an old port city that’s scarred by rapid Westernization but holding onto its distinct identity. Edith doesn’t have the ability to force some continuity between Morocco and home; it’s only when the country changes her that contentment is possible.