×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Sofia’

Writer-director Meryem Benm’barek’s lean, nuanced script astutely picks apart class hypocrisy via a story of a young woman who gives birth out of wedlock.

Director:
Meryem Benm’barek
With:
Maha Alemi, Lubna Azabal, Sarah Perles, Faouzi Bensaïdi, Hamza Khafif, Nadia Niazi, Rawia, Mohammed Bousbaa. (Arabic, French dialogue)

1 hour 19 minutes

Comparisons with Tunisia’s “Beauty and the Dogs” will unfortunately hound Morocco’s “Sofia,” though if parallels must be made, it’s the latter title that comes off as the better film. Both are centered around a nightmarish eve in a young middle-class woman’s life, when mistreatment for perceived lapses in the social contract reach abusive proportions. In the case of “Sofia,” the woman surprises herself and her family when she gives birth out of wedlock and then calculatedly manipulates the situation to her own ends. Debuting writer-director Meryem Benm’barek won the best screenplay prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section, though even without the award, this admirably mordant film deserves to travel widely on the festival circuit as well as art houses beyond its Francophone countries of origin.

Another comparison that springs to mind is “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days,” both for the way Benm’barek blocks out her scenes (Belgian cinematographer Son Doan’s mutable camerawork fits snugly into the “Romanian” category) as well as her caustic look at a hypocritical society’s treatment of a woman’s body. Even the use of mealtime scenes shares a Romanian New Wave vibe, though “Sofia” doesn’t feel derivative. Things kick off at a dinner, when Faouzi (Faouzi Bensaïdi) and his family entertain Ahmed (Mohammed Bousbaa), a businessman with whom he hopes to close a deal that would make him less reliant on his French brother-in-law’s support in maintaining upper-middle-class aspirations.

When Faouzi’s daughter Sofia (Maha Alemi) nearly doubles over with pain in the kitchen, her med school cousin Lena (Sarah Perles) assesses the situation and realizes she’s pregnant. Just then Sofia’s water breaks, and Lena hurries her off to the hospital, inventing excuses to the family as she tries to get her cousin admitted without the required ID or parental oversight.

After working connections to get Sofia checked in and the baby delivered, Lena insists that the baby’s father be told. Dazed and resistant, the exhausted young woman relents and leads her to Omar (Hamza Khafif), living with his family in the kind of working-class Casablanca neighborhood the cousins would never normally enter. By this time Sofia’s parents and aunt Leila (Lubna Azabal) have been informed, and everyone convenes at Omar’s apartment in one of the film’s strongest sequences: After destabilizing scenes with a shaky camera, Benm’barek employs rigidly fixed shots around three sides of a square as the two families try to come to an agreement. Sofia’s parents and aunt look to contain the social disaster, which could easily have financial implications, by insisting the couple marry quickly, while Omar’s crafty single mother Zohra (Rawia) awakens to the advantages of sacrificing her son’s happiness by hitching him to this well-off family.

Benm’barek’s lean, nuanced script clearly picks apart class hypocrisy within Moroccan society, where the haute bourgeoisie are hellbent on preserving status and their aura of European sophistication no matter the individual consequences. The two young women are superbly drawn examples: Sofia is part of the aspirational stratum eagerly reaching for financial and socio-cultural urbanity, while Lena’s family, elevated to the highest sphere thanks to her father’s Gallic origins and wealth, sit astride Franco-Moroccan culture with a superior sense of ownership. Lena’s finely-shaped features, her ease in French and her career path as an oncologist contrast with Sofia’s doughy looks, preference for speaking Arabic, and contentment with a circumscribed life as wife and ruler of a home. In many ways she’s a rebel, unwilling to emulate her cousin or follow the path her parents want her to take, but she’s also a throwback, scheming to achieve a role far more traditional than her family expects.

Both lead actresses are exceptionally well cast, and although Alemi has the more thankless role, spending a large part of the film looking peaky and sullen, she subtly turns the tables to reveal a strength of character previously kept hidden. Perles is a joy to watch, conveying Lena’s genuine concern for her cousin’s situation with a sense of moral outrage that’s as naïve as it is sympathetic; her understated control of the slightest facial expression means she owns the screen in each scene. Camera movements are finely calibrated to every tonal shift, moving from discretely observational in the dinner scene to a jerky familiarity when searching for Omar’s apartment and on to a coolly fixed stare as Sofia cunningly turns the situation to her advantage.

Film Review: 'Sofia'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 16, 2018. Running time: 79 MIN.

Production: (France-Belgium) A Memento Films release (in France) of a Curiosa Films, Versus Prod. production, in association with Cinémage 12, with the participation of Canal Plus, Ciné Plus, Centre National du Cinéma et de l’Image Animée. (International sales: Be for Films, Brussels.) Producer: Olivier Delbosc. Executive producers: Christine De Jekel, Saïd Hamich.

Crew: Director, writer: Meryem Benm’barek. Camera (color, widescreen): Son Doan. Editor: Céline Perreard.

With: Maha Alemi, Lubna Azabal, Sarah Perles, Faouzi Bensaïdi, Hamza Khafif, Nadia Niazi, Rawia, Mohammed Bousbaa. (Arabic, French dialogue)

More Film

  • oscar nominations 2019 stream online

    How to Watch This Year’s Oscar-Nominated Films

    The 2019 Oscar nominations have been announced, and if you want to catch up on the nominees, we’ve rounded up some easy ways to watch or stream the original films, documentaries, and songs competing for an award. Period comedy “The Favourite” and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” lead the pack with 10 nominations apiece, while “Green Book” [...]

  • Pawel Pawlikowski "Cold War"

    Pawel Pawlikowski's 'Cold War' Makes History for Poland

    Alfonso Cuaron might’ve tied an Oscar record with four nods to his name for “Roma,” which scored 10 nominations overall. But another black-and-white film in a foreign language, Pawel Pawlikowski’s jazz-infused romantic drama “Cold War,” was honored with three Academy Award nominations Tuesday, the most in history for a primarily Polish-backed production. The film will [...]

  • BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

    U.K. Cinema Attendance in 2018 Was Highest Since 1970

    Cinema attendance in the U.K. topped 177 million in 2018, the highest number since 1970. Box office held firm at £1.3 billion ($1.7 billion) through the year as 10 movies crossed the £30 million threshold in the year. That compares with six films in 2017. After a sweltering summer in the U.K. and a strong [...]

  • ASIB Roma Black Panther

    Vote: Which Movie Should Win the Oscar for Best Picture?

    The 91st Oscar nominations were unveiled on Tuesday with “Roma” and “The Favourite” leading the way with 10 nods each. “Roma,” Alfonso Cuaron’s love-letter to his childhood nanny, is Netflix’s first-ever best picture nomination and could make history as the first foreign-language movie to ever win the top prize at the Academy Awards. More Reviews [...]

  • Göteborg TV Drama Vision Expects 60

    TV Drama Vision Set to Take Pulse of Nordic Commissioners’ Wish List

    More than 360 international delegates are expected at Göteborg’s 13th Nordic TV Drama Vision (Jan. 30-31) described by head of industry Cia Edström as a ‘boutique event’, where top Nordic and international drama professionals gather each year to gauge the state of the Nordic market and hot content. For the first time, to comply with the [...]

  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

    Oscar Nominations: The Academy Often Sings to Its Own Tune

    You know the annual Oscar nominations announcement is going to be a lively one when things begin to enter a lull just before they drop, and that’s what it felt like ahead of Tuesday morning’s reveal. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, ever evolving and growing as a voting body, was sure to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content