Habi, The Foreigner (Habi, La Extranjera): Berlin Review

Habit The Foreigner Still - H 2013

Habit The Foreigner Still - H 2013

Puzzling portrait of cultural tourism taken to extremes.

Atmospheric first-time drama about a young Argentine woman assuming a fake Muslim identity.

BERLIN - Cultural curiosity becomes the mother of reinvention in this delicately crafted first-time feature from the Argentine writer-director Maria Florencia Alvarez, which premiered last week at the Berlin film festival. A joint Argentinean-Brazilian project co-produced by Oscar-winner and On the Road director Walter Salles, the film’s plot is slender, open-ended and frustratingly opaque in places. More short story than novel, Habi, The Foreigner may muster an art-house following in Spanish-speaking markets, but overseas appeal outside the festival circuit is likely to be lukewarm.

Martina Juncadella stars as Analia, a shy 20-year-old woman from provincial Argentina who arrives in Buenos Aires on a delivery errand.  But instead of heading home as planned, she extends her stay following a chance encounter with the city’s Muslim community. Settling into a shabby guesthouse, she takes up lessons in Arabic and Islamic practice, dons a headscarf and reinvents herself as a Middle Eastern orphan called Habibi. This bold act of fakery helps her land a job at the local Lebanese grocery story, but it also creates tensions with the owner’s son Hassan (Martin Slipak), whose romantic fantasy of reconnection with his roots becomes entangled with Analia’s equally fanciful dream of disconnecting from hers.

Habi, The Foreigner poses some interesting questions about identity and self-reinvention, but never fully answers them. While Juncadella gives a quietly luminous performance, the script offers no persuasive motivation for Analia’s bizarre experiment in cultural tourism. Is her attraction to Islam a rebellious protest against her stifling family? An unconscious reaction to the demonization of Muslims in the wake of 9/11? Just a random accident? We can only guess.

Alvarez is good on quirky details, such as the hotel manager’s daughter who insists on only speaking English to guests as a kind of mocking game. But the big picture eludes her in a plot that relies a little too heavily on freak coincidence and convenient miscommunication. While both director and star clearly have potential, this puzzling little debut ultimately proves too guarded and understated for its own good.

Venue: Berlin Panorama screening, February 12

Production companies: Lita Stantic Producciones, Kramer & Sigman Films, Videofilmes Producoes Artisticas

Producers: Lita Stantic, Hugo Sigman, Walter Salles

Cast: Martina Juncadella, Martin Slipak, Lucia Alfonsin, Maria Luisa Mendonca

Director: Maria Florencia Alvarez

Writer: Maria Florencia Alvarez

Cinematographer: Julian Apezteguía

Editor: Eliane D. Katz

Music: Santiago Pedroncini

Sales agent: Lita Stantic Producciones, Buenos Aires

Rating TBC, 92 minutes