Sofia Alaoui, short film grand jury prize winner at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, debuted her feature, Animalia, on January 20. The film stars scene-stealer Oumaïma Barid in an emotionally transformative role that is a standout of the festival. It contains stunning visuals thanks to cinematographer Noé Bach and a haunting score from Amine Bouhafa. A love letter to existential inquisition and class dissection, Alaoui’s film is mysterious and imaginative in all the best ways a project can be.
Itto (Oumaïma Barid), a very pregnant wife to successful businessman Amine (Mehdi Debhi), dreams of a day with peace and quiet away from his snooty family. When she finally gets her wish, Itto spends her day dancing through the halls of opulent décor and snacking on candy without the judgment of her elitist mother-in-law. But when the government declares a state of emergency due to ominous encounters, Itto longs to reunite with her family. While struggling to find her way back to Amine, Itto finds help in the most unlikely of places. In doing so, she unexpectedly comes across a phenomenon that sets her on a path of empirical liberation.
Alaoui has created an experience that feels hypnotic, unsettling, and even uplifting. Through Itto, she sensibly explores the conundrums of faith and purpose by deconstructing the connection between religion and humanity. One standout sequence, which sees Itto fending for herself after a betrayal from her neighbor leaves her stranded, jump-starts the problems she’s soon to face. Encounters with oddly-behaved animals, large clouds with green lightning — these are just some of the experiences Itto must survive in order to save her unborn child. In the process, the journey tests her persistence and ability to survive.
Alaoui’s script begins to also test Itto’s faith after several encounters leave her on the outskirts of Khourigba, which is where Amine is located. Soon, she must rely on her wits and resourcefulness instead of her money with the help from a friendly stranger Fouad (Fouad Oughaou). His coldness is only due to Itto’s insistence on using money to make everything work in her favor. In these moments, the script shrewdly examines class prejudice in a way that reminds its viewers that money can’t solve everything. Similarly, it elegantly reveals how a dangerous reliance on luxury can lead to the relinquishment of identity.
The moments in which the themes of Animalia intersect are what makes Alaoui’s ambitious feature worth watching. Though it never becomes clear how the nebulous phenomenon came to be and what the intent is from the invaders, the film displays a beautiful character study of a desperate woman who ultimately seeks meaning in her new-found disoriented life. To that end, Barid submits an excellent portrayal, in which she intricately times her subtle reactions to exemplify the existential crises experienced by her character. Her performance is bound to stick with viewers after an initial watch, and it would likely be the thing that gets people to watch it again.
A strong showcase of inspiring and bold storytelling, Animalia is how to make a quality film that boasts ambiguity and character growth. A scrutinization of elitism mixed with a healthy dose of challenging faith and purpose, Sofia Alaoui’s creative sci-fi debut is hypnotic and inspiring. It doesn’t always work in exhibition, but the storytelling is sincere in how it depicts its themes while questioning the need for humanity. And if by some chance humanity would cease to exist, the film’s message of “everything will be alright” is comforting at its finest.
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Animalia premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival on January 20. The film is 91 minutes long and not yet rated.