'Adam': Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
'Adam'
Poignant and involving.

Actresses Lubna Azabal and Nisrin Erradi turn a simple story about an unwed Moroccan girl who is pregnant into gold in Maryam Touzani’s directing debut.

The beautiful story of two women who transform each other's lives, Maryam Touzani's feature directing bow Adam is a bright addition to Cannes' Un Certain Regard section. With great delicacy, she shows how Moroccan society censures a woman who gives birth outside marriage  not a terribly original theme, but here it is made heartrending by the superb performances of Lubna Azabal and Nisrin Erradi in the lead roles.

It will rather inevitably be compared to another Moroccan film by a first-time woman director, Meryem Benm’Barek’s award-winning Sofia from last year, in which Azabal was also cast. But while Sofia described the privilege of an irresponsible middle-class girl in the throes of an unplanned pregnancy, Adam is set in a poor quarter of Casablanca and its tale of a country girl who shelters with a shrewish local woman is 100 percent heart. Though this is a classic women's story, it has the kind of emotional appeal that could connect with art house audiences, if given half a chance. 

Touzani's background is in acting and writing; she starred in and co-wrote Razzia with director-producer Nabil Ayouch, who also collaborated on this film. The director introduces young Samia (Erradi) as she knocks on doors in the big city of Casablanca, looking for work and a place to bed down. It’s soon clear that no one wants to deal with her dilemma: she is many months pregnant, with no family in sight.

Abla (a dour, glammed-down Azabal) is a single mother with a young daughter and she is still deeply traumatized by her husband's death. She supports them by running a small bakery connected to their house. Though at first she shoos Samia away, practically slamming the door in her face, she has second thoughts when she finds the girl is still sitting on the street late at night. Samia ends up spending the night on the couch, on the understanding she'll leave in the morning.

With her calm, gentle gaze, Samia turns out to be such a nice person that her stay gets extended several times. Abla's daughter, Warda (the bright but never cloying Douae Belkhaouda), is very drawn to her, but her mother continues playing the bitter old witch. Even when Samia demonstrates she’s an expert pastry maker who can pay her way at the home bakery, Abla's introversion and deep distrust of people prevents her from warming to the girl.

Their relationship is admirably underwritten, in the sense that no major accident or faux pas on Samia's part is necessary to reach an impasse. Abla loses her patience one day and throws her out, but later regrets it immensely in a touching, tension-laden turnaround. This leads to a livelier second act, in which the drama shifts to how Samia is going to cope with a baby.

Public reaction has already made itself felt in a punchy scene at the public oven where the girl goes to bake bread: Her big belly is caustically criticized by some local women. Samia, always so calm and wise, has no doubt that she has to give the baby up for adoption because "with me he's doomed"; society views illegitimate children as filth and turns them into outcasts. But Abla gently encourages her to let herself love the little boy, and the final act is an emotional roller coaster which, if nothing else, should make audiences re-examine their prejudices.

In the meantime, the girl performs a great service for Abla that involves breaking down her defenses and opening her heart to the world again. This single scene is excruciatingly difficult to carry off, but Touzani gives her actresses all the time they need to make a sea change plausible. Though Azabal has spent most of the film acting harsh and immovable, her compassionate nature peeks through in her love for Warda. She even has a love-sick suitor, Slimane (Aziz Hattab), whose role is mainly comic. But it is Erradi who is a revelation, creating an unforgettable character out of an uneducated country girl. The courage of both women is notable.

The story is backed up by quietly good tech work, beginning with cinematographer Virginie Surdej’s beautiful use of light to illuminate this low-key drama. Pilar Peredo’s sets in Casablanca’s Old Medina have an everyday elegance, with memorable touches like a doily incongruously decorating a tape recorder. Music is taken from well-worn recordings by artists like Warda Al-Jazairia.
 
Production companies: Ali n’ Productions, Les Films du Nouveau Monde, Artemis Films
Cast: Lubna Azabal, Nisrin Erradi, Douae Belkhaouda, Aziz Hattab, Hasnaa Tamtaoui
Director: Maryam Touzani
Screenwriter: Maryam Touzani in association with Nabil Ayouch
Producer: Nabil Ayouch
Director of photography: Virginie Surdej
Production designer: Pilar Peredo
Editor: Julie Naas
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
World sales: Films Boutique

In Arabic
98 minutes