Cannes 2018 Review: In a Remarkable Debut, ‘Sofia’ Proves that “Women’s Cinema” is a Moniker to be Proud of

One of the greatest joys of film festivals is discovering films that don’t make the advertising headlines, yet leave you with the knowledge that you have witnessed something brilliant. This can certainly be said for Meryem Benm’Barek-Aloïsi’s Sofia, in a truly remarkable debut that boldly explores themes often relegated to the title of “women’s cinema”: social status, family ties, and unwanted motherhood. Such themes may well be off-putting to viewers more interested in murdered sex workers and dismembered breasts, but there’s no accounting for taste.

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Maha Alemi as ‘Sofia’ and Sarah Perles as ‘Lena’ in Sofia (2018)

Sofia, our eponymous protagonist, is a young Moroccan woman who lives with her parents in Casablanca. In the middle of dinner one evening, she suddenly begins experiencing pain in her lower body. Rushing to the kitchen, fluid breaks down her legs, commencing a barrage of problems as she must give birth to and parent a child whose existence she had been completely unaware of. Simultaneously, and perhaps most notably, Sofia must deal with the ramifications of single motherhood in a country where sex outside of marriage is illegal.

Her only ally in this battle is her cousin Lena, a medical student who uses her influence to ensure a safe delivery for the baby. Gentle and kind, Lena is a great empathy point for the audience, deflecting from Sofia’s sullen demeanour. The combination of the two women and their supportive relationship is beautiful to witness, especially considering their striking differences and approaches to the issue at hand. Together the pair attempt to track down the child’s father, as only an acknowledgment of the child and hopeful marriage can restore Sofia’s tarnished honour.

The need for Sofia’s child to be legitimized comes at the bidding of a double-pronged threat. Without the approval of the father, she will be punished both legally and socially, and it is unclear which will be more damning. To the dismay of her family, Sofia declares that her child’s father is a working-class slacker named Omar, a character who adds a heavy dose of class warfare into the already complex mix of sociological themes. Once more, Sofia is reprimanded for her choices, as her middle-class parents despair at the thought of their daughter becoming the housewife of such a man.

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Maha Alemi and Hamza Khafif in Sofia (2018)

If “women’s cinema” was ever intended to be one-note, then Sofia isn’t listening to expectations. The film weaves the weight of social hypocrisy through each beat of its straightforward plot, continually centering the changing values of women. While Lena is supportive and goes to extra lengths to ensure the safety of mother and child, the generation above reacts with concern only for a deep-set morality. Still, both responses are rooted in a love for Sofia, whether they are mindful primarily of her reputation, or of her health. A predictable story, therefore, is offset by the careful examination of emotionally charged ideas, and the unique way in which female voices are prioritised. Sofia may not be winning any Oscars, but it certainly marks the beginning of a promising career for Benm’Barek-Aloïsi, and the flourishing of a cinema that understands the nuances of social injustice.

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