Sofia Alaoui’s debut Animalia is a sci-fi about how we react to cosmic events, and how we come to challenge the hierarchical structures we once clung to.
In Morocco, the pregnant Itto (Oumaima Barid) lives in the palace of her rich family-in-law. Her husband Amine (Mehdi Dehbi) is the son of local caïd Mustapha (Mohamed Az-El-Arab Kaghat) and Hajar (Souad Khouyi), who is cold and hostile towards her daughter-in-law. Perhaps it is related to her lower-class upbringing, with Itto musing to her husband that she is “nobody’s daughter.” When the family head off to visit the governor in Khourigba, Itto deliberately stays behind. Then supernatural events – later revealed to be aliens arriving – force the country to declare a state of emergency and block off the city. Amine quickly arranges for a neighbour to take her to Khourigba. However, he abandons Itto in a random village not too dissimilar to where she grew up.
There, she tries to steal a motorbike that belongs to an inn owner named Fouad (Fouad Oughaou). As uncertainty grows and people gather to pray in mosques, Fouad offers to take her to Khourigba. Along the way, they come across a nebula cloud that puts Itto on the path to emancipation.
The first feature film from French-Moroccan filmmaker Sofia Alaoui, Animalia certainly has more than a few atmospheric moments. DP Noé Bach shot Alaoui’s Sundance award-winning short So What If the Goats Die (2019), and their established relationship leads to some spectacular tableaus here. Itto trying to look at a horizon obscured by thick fog. Auroras which remind one character of the 1972 coup attempt. The stars in the night sky. And the mountainous landscape of the Atlas Mountains, captured in colossal wide-screen. Later, Alaoui and Bach place a heap of style onto the moment Itto and Fouad venture into the nebula cloud, from double exposures and dissolves to Wong Kar-wai style step-printing. The latter creates an experimental, otherworldly look for what becomes a reawakening for Itto.
Her shifting views regarding two specific parts of her life drive Animalia. The first is the privilege of her new family. Their extreme wealth is shown in the first scene at their opulent, lavishly furnished house – full of chandeliers, Pharoah lamps, mosaics and fountains. And Mustapha’s influence allows Amine to buy a large plot of land for him and Itto, which will be full of poultry and solar panels. This opulence contrasts sharply with her past. As a Berber (a group indigenous to North Africa), her family made do and weren’t able to buy things freely. In a conversation with Fouad, she admits to feeling envious in her youth.
But at the same time, Itto is caught between two worlds – and is uncomfortable in both. Switching between French, Arabic and Berber throughout, she also tries to bribe multiple people including the incorruptible Fouad. But when she returns to her family, the luxury cars, the copious amounts of food, and the disapproving looks from her mother-in-law stick out even more. If she is an outsider there, where does she truly belong?
The second part of her life that changes is an aspect that is important to Arab society. At the start, Itto is very religious. It makes sense when we see the nationwide response to the aliens, with people flocking to holy places. Yet it causes a rift with the anti-wealth, agonistic Fouad. Itto believes God will take all His believers on Judgement Day. Is it about to arrive? Or, as a hitchhiker known in the credits as The Teenager (Mohamed Lahbib) muses, is God “more elusive than a black ant on a black stone on a dark night?” The direction Alaoui is leaning towards is perhaps revealed in the final act, which is deeply critical of religious traditions (which conveniently also keep up gender and class divides).
Opaque in a way that will frustrate some, depicting an alien invasion that is spiritual rather than physical, Animalia is a somewhat alluring rumination on privilege and religion through a woman’s journey. And whilst the film loses its way in the final act, the rest is anchored by Bach’s visuals and Oumaima Barid’s performance as the emotional, defensive Itto. “The physical world is based on a more complex one. Like fish who cannot see the water they are in, we are immersed in something we don’t see,” says The Teenager at one point. It hints at the grand realisation that Itto has gone through. Things will never be the same after this.
And Sofia Alaoui’s debut is about how we react to random, cosmic events, and how we come to challenge the structures we once clung to.
Animalia will be screened at the BFI London Film Festival on 9-11 October 2023. Read our list of 25 movies to watch at the 2023 London Film Festival!