Sundance 2023 Review: ANIMALIA, Abstract, Metaphysical Sci-Fi Drama
For writer-director Sofia Alaoui, winning the Short Film Grand Jury Prize for Qu’importe si les bêtes meurent (So What If the Goats Die) at the Sundance Film Festival and the Best Short Film at the César Awards three years ago opened literal doors.
Those wins raised Alaoui’s international profile and gave her the opportunity to get her first, feature-length script, Animalia, a science-fiction drama set in contemporary Morocco, into production. By turns esoteric, enigmatic, and hermetic, Animalia marks the arrival of a new, freshly original cinematic voice, albeit an atypical, idiosyncratic, unorthodox one.
When we first meet Animalia’s central character, Itto (Oumaima Barid), a heavily pregnant woman in her late 20s, she’s breaking the inflexible, unspoken rules of her adopted home and the wealthy family who owns it, commiserating with the household staff and preparing her own food in the kitchen. It’s enough to send her controlling, authoritarian mother-in-law (Souad Khouyi) into barely suppressed paroxysms of anger. Itto’s ethnic background as a Berber and as a woman from a lower social class already makes her suspect and in her mother-in-law’s eyes unworthy of marriage to Amine (Mehdi Dehbi), the family's most-favored son, or mother to their still unborn child.
Itto's relationship with her mother-in-law is based on a detente that could implode at any given moment, making it all more understandable when Amine and the other members decamp to another town for a potential business deal, leaving Itto temporarily alone and briefly happy at the prospect of some alone time, free of her mother-in-law’s prying, judgmental eyes. Little things, like enjoying a relaxing bath, couch time, and eating whatever she wants, give her a modest taste of freedom otherwise missing from her heavily-regulated life.
News of an unspecified, global-level meteorological event, however, changes everything. Army trucks speed by outside the gates, cell phones become unreliable, and Itto learns that Amine can’t get back to her.
Instead, she has to find a way to Khourigba, a cordoned-off town on the other side of the Atlas Mountains. Relying initially on a faux-friendly neighbor leaves Itto and her unborn child stranded in a dusty town filled with wary men, stray dogs behaving strangely, and birds following unnatural flight patterns.
Those signs and warnings do little to change Itto’s resolve to get back to Amine and everything he represents, though an attempt to steal a motorized tricycle from a hotel keeper, Fouad (Fouad Oughaou), ends with Fouad, like Itto a Berber, begrudgingly agreeing to transport Itto across the mountains. Motivated less by the wads of money Itto offers him than a sense of obligation, duty, and responsibility to a woman in need, Fouad doesn’t hesitate to call out Itto’s newfound attitudes about money, class, and power.
While Alaoui interweaves a not-so-gentle critique of a heavily stratified Moroccan society, she deliberately keeps the nature and extent of the meteorological phenomenon ambiguous and undefined. Instead, she focuses on the reactions to the potential visitation of extraterrestrial beings to our world and how a particular organized religion (Islam) would respond to a world-changing event, offering meaningful comfort to some and empty platitudes to others.
Alaoui also leaves the overriding question open of how much the encounter with an alien intelligence, if any, would lead to significant, real change on a social, cultural, and political level, suggesting, contrary to Itto’s direct experience, that those changes would be felt superficially by some or even many. At several points on her physical and metaphysical journey, Itto crosses paths with men (mostly) whose odd, eccentric behavior may be a natural response to the worldwide event, “possession” by otherworldly beings, or simply those beings taking on recognizable human form, functioning similarly to biblical angels, guiding Itto to personal safety and something approaching spiritual enlightenment.
Animalia premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.