'Sofia': Film Review | Cannes 2018

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A cri de coeur packaged as a realistic drama.

Moroccan director Meryem Benm’Barek's first feature looks at a woman's plight after giving birth out of wedlock.

A 20-year-old single Moroccan girl suffering from pregnancy denial faces the tough local laws on sex outside of marriage when she suddenly gives birth in Sofia, the feature debut from Morocco-born, Belgium-educated Meryem Benm’Barek. Reminiscent in many ways of last year’s Tunisian film Beauty and the Dogs, right down to its Cannes Un Certain Regard premiere slot, this film also looks at a young woman facing the mores and laws of a country that seems more interested in surface propriety than citizens' actual well-being. Sofia should find slots at festivals and in niche release in the West, though the director has stated her film has been written with a Moroccan release in mind as well.

Not many features start with a quote of the article of the penal code that the film wants to illustrate or explore, but Benm’Barek does just that, initially setting a tone that might strike some as too literal or even agitprop-y. But the unforced naturalism of the Casablanca-set story that follows quickly alleviates these concerns as audiences are introduced to the titular heroine, Sofia (newcomer Maha Alemi, good). The very few options that are available to her arise organically from the material as the story advances, so the film never feels preachy and, in any case, Sofia as a character is almost the opposite of militant. 

The single 20-year-old starts to have stomach pains while slaving away during a dinner for her family, including her parents (Nadia Niazi, Faouzi Bensaidi), and their visitors. Since she’s unaware, at least consciously, that she’s actually pregnant, Sofia can’t really figure out what’s going on but thankfully her cousin Lena (Sarah Perles), who’s about the same age, is a medical student who quickly puts two and two together without getting the whole family involved.

Since sex outside of marriage is a crime in Morocco, punishable by up to a year in prison, no hospital wants to accept a woman about to give birth without the presence or at least the papers of the father, which Sofia can’t provide. (These kinds of bureaucratic difficulties in the face of urgent required care were also a recurrent motif in Beauty and the Dogs.) Again, Lena comes to the rescue, as she knows a young physician who might be able to help them at least during the delivery. It is clear, however, that the father’s identity can’t remain a mystery forever since otherwise the baby won’t be able to be acknowledged, and Lena goads Sofia into going to visit him at the home of his parents, where he still lives, in a neighborhood of Casablanca that’s not as chic as the more central location of Sofia’s family.  

The poor soul in question is called Omar (Hamza Khafif), and the fact that he’s suddenly a parent is as much a surprise for him as it was for Sofia. What follows after the initial revelations are terse negotiations between the two families to try and come to an arrangement, which also requires the help of the police, whose desire to collaborate increases hundredfold when they are paid off, somewhat reluctantly, by Lena’s mom, Leila (Lubna Azabal, from Incendies), who is married to a wealthy Frenchman. A marriage is soon arranged for the new parents, who only met by chance on the day Sofia was fired from her job at a call center and he wanted to comfort the sad-looking girl.

Benm’Barek also wrote the screenplay and what gradually becomes clear is that, despite its title, Sofia — a name linked to wisdom and purity — is not a character study so much as a portrait of a society in which equality seems to be an entirely alien concept. Of course, there are the differences between men and women, though the situation is more complex than a simple power dynamic where men are always dominant, as suggested by the writer-director’s fascinating treatment of Omar’s character. What’s at least — and perhaps even more — important is class, with the fact that Omar is from a much more modest background only the most obvious difference. Even within family circles class differences can exist, as Sofia’s direct family is from a lower class than her cousin Lena’s, with her mom Leila having married into wealth. Benm’Barek’s choice to keep Leila’s husband conspicuously offscreen was a wise one, turning him into an enigmatic source of wealth and privilege. This choice implicitly links the current-day situation of the country to its colonial past, during which foreigners dictated the values and rules that are at least partially responsible for the situation Moroccan society finds itself in today. 

The many class differences aren’t constantly being named but are constantly on display nonetheless. Sofia wears traditional Moroccan garb while Lena wears tight black jeans and trendy agora sweaters, for example, while Lena also switches more often from Arabic to French than her cousin does. The locations are also very telling, from the rundown, scrappy living quarters of Omar’s family to the decent downtown home of Sofia and her parents and the exceptional, contemporary villa that belongs to Lena’s family and on whose seaside terrace a narrative bombshell explodes about an hour in. The revelation isn’t meant to add a twist for drama's sake but rather to sharpen the viewers’ sense of how much more important honor and appearances are than even the truth and to what extent all layers of Moroccan society either agree with it or recognize the importance of going along with the idea, however begrudgingly.

If most of the individual characters finally fade somewhat into the background, the director's portrait of a country's complex relationship to its own values, laws and taboos finally lingers.    

Production companies: Curiosa Films, Versus Production
Cast: Maha Alemi, Lubna Azabal, Sarah Perles, Faouzi Bensaidi, Hamza Khafif, Nadia Niazi, Rawia
Writer-director: Meryem Benm’Barek
Producer: Olivier Delbosc
Executive producers: Christine De Jekel, Said Hamich
Director of photography: Son Doan
Production designer: Samuel Charbonnot
Editor: Celine Perreard
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Sales: Be For Films

In French, Darija
80 minutes