Stars: 3.5

Sofia Alaoui’s French-Moroccan science fiction debut film is an intriguing mystifying study of blind faith , conservatism and purdah in a closed society where ‘escape’ is never only a metaphor. The film had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, on 20 January 2023. At the 2023 Calgary International Film Festival, the film won the award for Best International Feature Film.

It deserves every accolade and recognition. Like the impenetrable culture that it so languidly portrays Animalia is a hidden beauty waiting to be discovered. Its protagonist is a pregnant young woman Itto played by Oumaïma Barid who is at once enigmatic and vivid. Barid is explosive in her disposition to lay bare her character’s soul without seeming too ‘forward’, a word often used disparagingly in backward societies.

The Moroccan upperclass is designed intricately in the script. We can see right from the start that Itto , heavily pregnant is waiting for deliverance. She has married into money and her -in-laws clearly disapprove of her. Itto’s husband Amin( Mehdi Dehbi) is not unkind but caught between his wife’s non-conformity and his mother’s snobbery.

Escape for Itto comes sooner than expected when some kind a freak weather crisis sends her off on a journey that won’t only transform her but also the smoggy treacherous environment where it is impossible to breathe.

Some international critics have interpreted Sofia Alaoui’s parable on feminism and freedom as a movie on an “alien invasion”. This is as narrow a reading of the profound screenplay as describing Martin Scorsese’s Killers Of Flower Moon as a serial-killer thriller.

The ostensible alien invasion is a manifestation of societal discrepancy in this tender yet strong movie of gentle persuasion.Director Alaoui slowly sucks us into her world of open discrimination and veiled threats. Given the context of the proceedings, Itto’s journey is revealing : her stopover at a strangely still village where she befriends a street dog and then a male sympathizer Fouad (Fouad Oughaou) who—Fouad, not the dog– takes it upon himself to take her back to the comfort and relative safety of her husband’s home.

The journey is fraught with ominous weather. The skies cloud with unusual ferocity. Animals act out of character. Human beings too. Does Itto develop feelings for her male companion? Even if she did she is not allowed to show them, nor ironically is the director.

Animalia contextualizes the hijab’s monocracy . But there is no political message as such,unless you want to see something that may or may not be there. Although the film is in many ways,a treat, I found the emotions being persistently muffled and smothered. It comes from the place where it comes from.