With her debut feature “Adam,” Maryam Touzani allows her audience to sit back and relax comfortably into a beautifully made, character-driven little gem that knows when and how to touch all the right buttons. Taking the stories of two women, both frozen in existential stasis, and bringing them together in a predictable yet deeply satisfying manner, the writer-director ensures this scrupulously even two-hander about grief, shame, and the redemption of motherhood doles out emotional comfort food that’s neither too sweet nor too heavy. Graced by two exceptional leads given every opportunity to shine, “Adam” should charm audiences in global art houses.
Previously, Touzani has been known for shorts and her work with husband Nabil Ayouch, who here acts as producer as well as writing collaborator. Still, this is very much her own film, its emotional tenor and cinematic style markedly different from Ayouch’s work. In terms of structure and narrative trajectory, there’s nothing surprising, just strong, confident filmmaking combined with the knowledge that food preparation and music are evergreen ways of winning over an audience. Not to imply they’re used here as an easy hook; on the contrary, Touzani’s generosity to her characters forestalls any suggestion of cynicism.
A clearly tired Samia (Nisrin Erradi) is looking for temporary work, the camera fixed on her doleful face in such a way that audiences don’t discover she’s heavily pregnant until someone mentions her condition. Reduced to sleeping in a doorway, she is spotted by Abla (Lubna Azabal) from her window across the way; after a struggle of conscience, the fretful woman goes out and tells Samia she can stay for a few nights. Abla’s delightful young daughter Warda (Douae Belkhaouda) eases the tension at home, but her mother’s dour expression rarely relaxes for more than a few seconds.
Touzani is a subtle storyteller who doesn’t give everything away immediately, preferring things to reveal themselves naturally, like Abla’s status as widow. Forced to make a living selling pastries from a window in her home, Abla takes self-sufficiency to an almost perverse level, refusing Samia’s help until the newcomer’s quiet determination to be useful begrudgingly wins her over with a tempting batch of hard-to-master rziza, a savory snack made from long strands of dough.
Though Abla is the more shut-down of the two, both women have locked themselves into their inner struggles. Samia rejects any emotional attachment to her unborn child, conceived out of wedlock, and is determined to give it up for adoption and return to her village as soon as she delivers. Her stubbornness on this point matches Abla’s, whose inability to process her husband’s death extends even to forbidding anyone playing music by her formerly favorite singer, Warda Al-Jazairia. Realizing she needs to break through the walls her new friend erected around herself, Samia forces Abla to listen to the song she had always associated with her husband. Shot with intimate proximity, the scene of their struggle over the cassette tape brings the pressure-cooker situation to a head, with the tension released when Abla finally allows her body to relax to the music.
The script scrupulously ensures both characters get equal time, their inner struggles each played out in such an appealing manner as to excuse the obviousness of the structural calculations Touzani must have made when writing. The same goes for young Warda’s over-chirpiness, her eternal sunshine peculiarly unaffected by her mother’s blanket projection of misery. Partly inspired by Touzani’s own pregnancy, “Adam” is an unabashed love letter to motherhood as well as to the skills of her two leads, both of whom are given wordless moments which allow the actresses to show off their emotional registers, always in understated ways, that take them from quiet anguish to an affecting radiance.
Together with busy DP Virginie Surdej, the director charted out a visual form strong on closeups that keep track of the way characters move through space, especially within Abla’s home, whose walls act as both haven and prison. Scenes of kneading dough and general food preparation enhance the pleasurable tactility of the flexible camerawork, underlining a discreet sensuality becoming more prominent as daylight penetrates further into the previously shadowy apartment.