‘Fatima’: Cannes Review

Although a little monotonous in terms of pace, and exposing of its lead actor's limitations as a performer, this kind-hearted story celebrates the dignity of a not-so ordinary immigrant woman

Philippe Faucon's latest realist drama explores the challenges facing an Algerian cleaner living in Lyon, and is adapted from books by Fatima Elayoubi.

Fatima offers a gentle, affecting celebration of the fortitude and intelligence of an Algerian cleaning lady (played by non-professional actor Soria Zeroual, who was an actual cleaner when she was cast) struggling to raise her two daughters in contemporary France. Another grounded, perceptive realist slice of immigrant life from director Philippe Faucon (La desintegration, Dans la vie) who has been mining this thematic vein for some time, Fatima, like its heroine, makes its points with quiet dignity without breast-beating or self-pity. However, it's plodding, methodical pace and low-wattage narrative drive will hamper its chances of catching attention beyond France.

The script by Faucon, with consultation from Aziza Boudjellal, Yasmina Nini-Faucon, and Mustapha Kharmoudi works hard to create some kind of narrative shape out of material taken from autobiographical books by Fatima Elayoubi, poems and prose pensées in Arabic which are quoted here extensively. The heroine, middle-aged Fatima (Zerual) is a resident of Lyon who came to France many years ago to join her husband (Chawki Amari), but they've since split up. Although her ex is around and occasionally visits his and Fatima's two daughters, sensible 19-year-old medical student Nesrine (Zita Hanrot) and 15-year-old rebel Souad (Kenza Noah Aiche), he seems to be contributing little or maybe nothing towards their upkeep.

Consequently, Fatima works practically every hour as a cleaner at wealthy bourgeois homes and in a local factory. Keenly aware of her mother's sacrifices and hopes that she'll have a better life, Nesrine devotes herself zealously to her studies, to the point where she's in danger of cracking under the pressure. Souad, on the other hand, is a snotty little brat who sneers at mom's lack of education and inability to even learn French well enough to understand what the teachers are saying during parent-teacher conferences at Souad's school, where the teen is at risk of expulsion for poor effort.

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Stung by her daughter's contemptuous words, and determined to prove that she has a brain and if she'd stayed on at the village school in Algeria she might have become a minister "if the elections weren't fixed," Fatima starts a diary and pours out all her frustrations, dreams and hopes, recited in voiceover. Unfortunately, she accidentally falls down some stairs at work and breaks her arm, compelling her to fight for disability allowance when the pain prevents her from work.

One of the flaws that keeps the film being as engaging as it might be is the way every shot seems to last about the same amount of time, producing a monotonous visual rhythm that only serves to make the plot seem even more episodic. And in all honesty, while her open, kindly face makes her a likeable presence, Zeroual's limitations as a performer only serve to exacerbate that flat affect elsewhere. Hanrot and Noah Aiche, who both, according to the press notes, are aspiring actors, fare a bit better, with Hanrot demonstrating considerable range and Noah Aiche a natural comic timing, especially in scenes where she flirts with — but mostly disses — young suitors who try to chat her up.

Robert-Marcel Lepage's thoughtful score, which mixes North African and European instruments evokes the right cross cultural note.

Production companies: An Istiqlal Films, Possibles Media, Arte France Cinema, Rhone-Alpes Cinema production
Cast: Soria Zeroual, Zita Hanrot, Kenza Noah Aiche, Chawki Amari
Director: Philippe Faucon
Screenwriters: Philippe Faucon, Aziza Boudjellal, Yasmina Nini-Faucon, Mustapha Kharmoudi, inspired by the books of Fatima Elayoubi
Producer: Yasmina Nini-Faucon, Philippe Faucon, Serge Noel
Executive producer: Nadim Cheikhrouha
Director of photography: Laurent Fenart
Editor: Sophie Mandonnet
Costume designer: Nezha Rahil
Composer: Robert-Marcel Lepage
Sales: Pyramide International
No rating, 89 minutes