Poor Berber girl Itto (Oumaima Barid) marries into a wealthy Muslim family in Morocco after her parents tragically pass away. She wholeheartedly embraces their religion and lifestyle, while finally finding a purpose in her miserable existence. She speaks upper-class French to her loving husband Amine (Mehdi Dehbi) and her welcoming in-laws. The entire family do their utmost in order to make her feel comfortable. She lives in a sumptuous mountainside mansion in the middle of the desert, with countless servants at her disposal. She’s a wide-eyed and lithe woman with a large pregnant belly. She looks stubborn yet brittle. Despite the abundant love and money, something suggests that Itto isn’t entirely happy with her privileged status: she experiences a cathartic sense of freedom as soon as her husband walks out of the door on a mission at the north of the country. She listens to loud music and dances, entirely unaware that disaster is about to hit.
Then a massive storm strikes, leaving Amine and his family stranded in the town of Khourigba, and Itto fending fending for herself entirely on her own at home. She begs a peasant to reunite her with her husband, but he takes her on the wrong direction, dumps her in an impoverished Berber village nearby, and runs around with the vehicle and the money. She finds comfort in the fact that she is carrying large sums of money, convinced that she can buy her way back to her family (or anything else she wants). Fouad (Fouad Oughaou) is a middle-aged, kind and honest non-believer and the owner of a small restaurant. He offers Itto shelter in his house, alongside his wife and his daughter. “It’s not safe for a woman to stay in a hotel on her own”, he explains. At first, she proudly refuses his offer, but eventually comes back begging for his help. She tries to buy him off, assuming that money is the only currency available. But Fouad is a selfless human being with no pecuniary interests.
Itto eventually speaks Berber to Fouad, instead of the two most highly regarded French and Arabic language over which she has perfect command. That’s when she begins to reconnect with her roots. The two bond and set off on a road trip towards Khourigba. A mysterious adolescent hitchhiker (Mohamed Lahbib) joins them. His gaze is firm and he has a permanent smirk attached to his safe. It’s not clear whether he’s arrogant, sadistic, or if he’s holding a secret. The three end up inside a paranormal sandstorm, with blue lights emanating from the sky. Berber culture is rumoured to have connections with extraterrestrial activities, which may explain the origin of the phenomenon. Reality, dream and hallucination spin around vertiginously inside the whirlwind. Visions are twisted and distorted. The outcome is beautiful and affecting. Itto forsakes the telluric and the material in favour of an elusive new purpose, illustrated by the cryptic imagery
The first feature film by French-Moroccan filmmaker Sofia Alaoui (who also the screenplay) sets out to question materialism, religious doctrine and theological determinism (the view that everything that happens is pre-established by God). Iffo begins to interrogate her faith after the events, and her life with Amine is never be the same. She converted to Islam because she was seeking a family and home, and not because she identified with the teachings of the Prophet. A typical case of “belonging” instead “believing”. This changes after the supernatural epiphany. Her relation to Muslimhood becomes fractious. Her new rebellious, etherial verve fully blossoms inside the mosque, in one of the movie’s final and most powerful scenes. Visually arresting. Heart-wrenching. Even if a little arcane.
Animalia shows at the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival. It premieres earlier this year at Sundance.