In a 2015 Cannes Film Festival lineup that generated much ado about “the year of the woman” and the troubling divisions in modern French society, few pictures merged these concerns quite as deftly or economically as Philippe Faucon’s “Fatima,” a warm and insightful dramedy about a Moroccan-born mother raising her two teenage daughters in Lyon. Shrewdly observing the everyday struggles, tensions and humiliations affecting three very different immigrant women, each one striving in her own way to find her place in the culture, this poignant slice-of-life proves as modest in length (78 minutes) as it is generous in rueful insight and emotional complexity — a combination that should enable this under-the-radar Directors’ Fortnight discovery to access a broad spectrum of international festivals and arthouse venues.
Faucon’s film began as a loose adaptation of “Priere a la lune” (“Prayer to the Moon”), a short collection of poems and other writings by Fatima Elayoubi, a North African woman who emigrated to France with her husband and gradually taught herself the language. When we first meet her onscreen alter ego (played by excellent first-timer Soria Zeroual), her head veiled and her expression guarded, she barely speaks French well enough to communicate properly with those around her, let alone write a book. Instead she works long hours as a cleaning lady to support her two daughters, Nesrine (Zita Hanrot), a promising 18-year-old medical student, and Souad (Kenza-Noah Aiche), a sullen, strong-willed 15-year-old who repeatedly proves the sharpest thorn in her mother’s side. Their father (Chawki Amari) is still in the picture, though he and Fatima divorced some time after she arrived in Lyon; pointedly, in a film that focuses entirely on its three superbly individuated female protagonists, Dad is the only character whose name we never learn.
From the very first scene — in which a prospective landlady first sets eyes on Nesrine and announces the apartment she wanted is suddenly no longer available — the film bluntly acknowledges the everyday indignity of being a dark-skinned outsider in this sometimes passively, sometimes aggressively hostile environment. Something similar occurs when Fatima begins cleaning house for a well-to-do white woman, finds some money left carelessly out in the open, and concludes that her new employer must be trying to test her integrity. In both cases you’re inclined to agree with Fatima and Nesrine that thinly veiled racism is at work, though whether these incidents are rooted in simple misunderstanding or genuine ill will is almost beside the point; there’s simply no missing the awkwardness, suspicion, condescension and fear latent in these everyday interactions between haves and have-nots.
Ultimately, however, “Fatima” is less concerned with the prejudices these women encounter than with the pressures and anxieties they experience from within their own community (as when a Moroccan-born neighbor scolds Nesrine for not acknowledging her in the street), and especially from each other. If Faucon’s script boasts a gently meandering narrative structure, it could scarcely be more tightly focused thematically, or more attuned to the subtle disparities in the way its characters communicate. Cumulatively, these scraps of everyday reality are woven into a thoughtful, multi-threaded examination of the difficulties of cultural assimilation, and the gap that so often arises between first-generation traditionalists and their rowdier, more progressive-minded children.
Fatima’s daughters, in particular, offer a sharp study in contrasts. Well aware of her need to work harder than her more privileged classmates, Nesrine focuses all her attention on her studies (a charming scene shows her gently rebuffing a guy who won’t stop hitting on her on the bus), and enjoys a warm, affectionate relationship with her mother. Souad, by contrast, proves a major handful, continually provoking Fatima with her (comparatively) revealing clothes and her defiant, directionless approach to life; her mother tries to maintain an open line of communication, but even the most innocuous exchange can devolve into angry bickering. When Fatima takes issue with the company Souad keeps, her daughter snorts, “Like I popped out of a golden hen’s ass!” — a line that registers as a stinging slap in the face yet also earns a genuine laugh.
Having previously focused on Moroccan-born French youth in his terrorism-themed drama “The Disintegration” (2011), Faucon here displays such casual yet bone-deep empathy for his characters that even Souad’s abrasive attitude is ultimately rooted in a deep and complicated well of shame, resentment, love and other conflicting emotions. Indeed, the strength of “Fatima” lies in its allowance for this very complexity; the film validates Fatima’s concern that her children are abandoning the old ways, but it also acknowledges the importance — and the inevitability — of their learning to forge their own hybrid identities. Without taking sides or imposing any sort of artificial resolution, Faucon finds just the right hopeful development on which to end, leaving his characters and the audiences on a note of sweet yet unmistakably hard-won optimism.
Laurent Fenart’s lensing and Sophie Mandonnet’s editing serve the material and the performances in unobtrusive fashion, and the three main actresses, despite their general inexperience, are utterly persuasive individually and as a family unit. Zeroual, in particular, lends Fatima a warmth and dignity that never feels less than lifelike; we understand her fear and ignorance, but also her selfless love for her children and her growing openness to life’s possibilities beyond the proscriptions of culture and religion. Mercifully, while this is very much the story of a woman who embraced the difficulties of learning — and mastering — a foreign language, most of that transformation is wisely left offscreen; we see Fatima practicing her writing in a few scenes, but the film doesn’t treat her as a problem to be solved or a case to be studied. “I speak the way I speak,” she declares at one point, and it’s a measure of the film’s integrity that this imperfectly stated admission fills us not with pity but with pride.