The films from the Islamic world that are released and celebrated in the West tend to be those that—appropriately or not—reinforce stereotypical Western conceptions of Islam as a stifling, misogynistic, cruel and absurd dogma of punishment and oppression. I don’t mean to discredit the version of reality those films present, it wouldn’t be my place to, even if I disagreed, but you have to dig for movies like Animalia, films that remind us that the ideal form of Islam is as founded on peace, love and a search for meaning in the mysteries of the natural world as any other global belief system. That it does so from a perspective that remains feminist, empowering and inquisitive is especially great to see, encouraging its audience to look at faith as a means to understanding, perspective and inner peace, rather than as a stick with which to beat people who challenge the status quo.
Itto (Oumaima Barid) is a young expectant mother who spends her days kicking around her husband’s palatial family home, chatting affectionately with the servants (to the disdain of his mother in law) and attending to her food cravings. Her life is thrown into turmoil though when a mysterious global event takes hold. Roads are closed, the army moves in, and Itto suddenly finds herself marooned in the country while her husband and his family are two days drive away. Something’s up, and no one human seems to know what’s going on, but the dogs and birds seem oddly knowledgeable…not that they’re sharing. Birds swoop at people’s heads, and stray dogs gather for meetings in the street. It’s real “so long and thanks for all the fish” vibes. As she makes a perilous journey across country to her husband, Itto searches her faith for comfort, something challenged by the atheist barley farmer and hotelier who gives her a lift. He’s a bit of a “faith-based movie atheist”, i.e. laughably jaded, insensitive, and condescending, taking every opportunity to scoff at the naivety of a believer. Still, he has a good enough heart to give her a ride, and it’s on the road that the two share a moment of divine revelation.
So yes, like many a faith-based movie, it can be quite on the nose, characters are just a little too keen to talk religion and the film’s first contact narrative is stretched a bit thin. It’s no alien invasion movie and more of an Arrival or Midnight Special, looking at the personal impact generated by the concept of confronting something infinitely greater than our lived experiences have prepared us for. What are aliens in pop culture if not secular gods: beings with knowledge and perspective far in advance of we mortals, divining our fates, filling us with awe, and forcing us to step outside our comfort zones and contemplate the sublime. Animalia makes the religious subtext an explicit allegory, and it works more because of how mysterious and vague it is than the specificity of its details. Even by the end, we’re given few convincing answers as to what’s been going on, we only know that Itto is profoundly affected by her experiences, many of which remain inscrutable to the viewer. Nonetheless, we feel their effect on her, thanks in large part to the phenomenal, often Malickian visuals. There are three or four moments in Animalia that took my breath away, and however clumsy some of the characterization and dialogue may be, nothing can deny it that, that Sofia Alaoui’s film is mesmerizingly beautiful at times.
I am a little of two minds about Animalia, I’ll admit I was watching it on about four hours sleep at the 2023 London Film Festival and I was struggling to keep my eyes open so maybe I was a little too sensitive to its slow pacing (though by contrast, The Royal Hotel kept me alert and attentive throughout) but there were definitely times when the film was struggling to convey the essence of a scene or felt too vague. But that inscrutability is precisely what makes it so compelling at times. There are moments where you feel precisely what its driving at, even if you might struggle to articulate it when called to. That’s what art is for, expressing feelings and ideas that can be tricky to express through conventional means. The sequence at the mosque for example, I couldn’t say quite what was taking place between the characters, but Itto’s fear and desperation, her sense of impending danger and her need to be close to her husband whatever the rules say, all came across, even if I couldn’t tell you what she was afraid of or what exactly was happening. Perhaps that’s why Animalia was so called (it’s original French-language title is parmi nous), like religion, it speaks to the animal parts of our brains, the parts that feel without comprehending. At the very least, I can say I understand and agree with one of the film’s assertions: if there is a God, they show themselves through animals.