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.
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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.