A surprising tale of an unwanted baby

BEIRUT: Unwanted pregnancy is, it seems, more popular in cinema than in life.

Two consecutive editions of the Cannes Film Festival have launched critically lauded Moroccan features on single parenthood. A few days ago writer-director Maryam Touzani debuted “Adam” in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section. Last year “Sofia,” the debut feature of writer-director Meryem Benm’Barek, premiered in Un Certain Regard.

This is probably no coincidence.

As some preliminary intertitles point out in “Sofia,” Morocco enforces legislation banning sexual congress between unmarried men and women, on pain of up to a year in prison. It’s a necessary textual diversion from what is otherwise an accomplished debut.

With “Sofia,” Benm’Barek demonstrates herself a skillful and economical storyteller, convincingly depicting how class and gender can condition the way characters cope with criminalized social embarrassment. Crisply shot by Hoang-Son Doan, ably directed and acted, “Sofia” is, firstly, well-written.

While most cinematic pregnancy tales flesh out the central character before having her seduced or raped, Benm’Barek opens her film the day Sofia (Maha Alemi) goes into labor.

It’s also the day her parents host a business-inflected dinner party.

The film’s opening lines are uttered by agri-businessman and family friend Ahmed (Mohamed Bousbaa), proposing that Sofia’s dad Faouzi (Faouzi Bensaidi) and her bourgie aunt Leila (Lubna Azabal), the wife of a French import-export magnate, invest in a plot of land adjacent his own. Leila’s been supporting her sister’s family, it seems, so this opportunity is important for Faouzi.

A shy, unemployed, stay-at-home young women, Sofia is overcome by severe abdominal pain in the middle of supper and has no idea why. Lena (Sarah Perles), a med school student, diagnoses the problem a few seconds before her cousin’s water breaks. (Benm’Barek’s characters inform innocent viewers that “pregnancy denial” is a real condition traumatized mothers can undergo.)

Lena accompanies Sofia through the long night that follows, urging her cousin to give up the father’s name. Sofia eventually tells her the father is Omar (Hamza Khafif), the disheveled eldest son of a recently widowed mother from Derb Sultan, a poor (and based on Aunt Leila’s response, undesirable) Casablanca quarter. Omar denies it, so he and Sofia end up at the police station. After some inducement from Aunt Leila, the duty officer encourages Omar to come to terms with Sofia.

It’s better than going to prison.

Omar reluctantly acknowledges that marrying into a rich family will allow him to help out his struggling family. Marriage preparation shifts into high gear. All’s right again, until Sofia reveals that one of her story’s details is false.

At root, “Sofia” is an effective work of narrative misdirection. In Alemi’s hands, Sofia is a sphinxlike figure, disclosing little in her speech or manner, forcing viewers to read her and her response to her predicament via the characters around her.

Appealing to viewers’ middle-class affinity with the protagonists, especially the idealistic Lena, it’s easy to see the hapless Omar as a self-serving miscreant, particularly when his mother, noting that Leila lives in an exclusive seaside suburb, warms to Omar and Sofia’s marriage.

If Benm’Barek’s fuel-efficient plot tends to reduce her minor characters to types, Perles, Azabal and Bensaidi do a fine job of making these caricatures believable, even familiar.

“Sofia” is screening at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 27, 2019, on page 12.




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