IFFR 2019: Sofia review


In Sofia, a young, unmarried Moroccan woman has a child out-of-wedlock. In a film deemed as a ‘social thriller’ where the ultimate revelation holds less power than the reasons for keeping it a secret, Meryem Benm’Barek-Aloïsi explores how issues of gender, class and power interact in a society that exercises rigid control over personal and sexual relationships.

Such is the shame and humiliation of the ordeal that befalls Sofia (Maha Alemi) almost as soon as the film begins that for one horrifying moment in a dark alley in the poor district of Derb Sultan in Casablanca, she actually looks for a box where she can put the child she has just given birth to in order to abandon it there to die. Her desperate need for her problem to go away had even manifested psychosomatically in a ‘pregnancy denial’ that had prevented her belly from growing and had enabled her to not confront the truth or disclose it to her parents for as long as possible.

Sex outside of marriage is a punishable offence in Morocco, the film informs at its outset. And with familial and social honour reposing inevitably in a woman’s body, Sofia’s family descends immediately to make amends, tracking down the child’s father whose appearance will conceivably put a respectable twist to the whole situation. But there is a lot more than what meets the eye initially in Benm’Barek-Aloïsi’s film which slowly and delicately teases out the nuances in the relations between the classes.

The hierarchical structure is such that it facilitates a one-way flow of power, control and entrapment. While Sofia is cornered by circumstances and her position as a woman in a society that is firmly intolerant of what it considers immoral behaviour, she too plays her part in the destructive cycle of coercion set in motion at a point in the past and makes sure that it continues to hold sway, ensnaring another in turn in its web of self-interest and opportunism.

Omar (Hamza Khafif), who confesses to having been complicit in the whole affair, even as tears of protest and anger roll down his face in the police captain’s office, is decidedly at the bottom of that food chain. The idea of marriage as an opportunity to ensure safety, comfort and protection for oneself is not just restricted to this unwitting couple but also includes Sofia’s aunt who admits to having married her rich French husband for reasons other than love.

The differences between Sofia and Omar’s backgrounds are obvious and stark, conveyed very effectively in scenes which place the two families on opposites sides of a table, framing them almost as representative blocks rather than individuals, and in another where having settled matters for the present, the two families leave the police station in strikingly different modes of transport.

Interesting also is the contrast between the reserved and shy Sofia and her more westernised, French-speaking, med-student cousin Lena (Sarah Perles). The confident and outgoing Lena, who is at Sofia’s side constantly, helping her navigate several bureaucratic barriers, may seem like the more sophisticated and experienced of the two but it is to the film’s credit that it punctures expectations yet again in the way it contrasts Sofia’s practicality and shrewdness to the former’s almost naïve idealism.

Sucheta Chakraborty