“The physical world relies on a much more complex universe. Like fish who cannot see the water they are in, we are immersed in something we cannot see either.” In Sofia Alaoui’s opaque sci-fi drama Animalia, characters grapple with the unknowable as they come face to face with an abstract alien invasion which has put Morocco in a state of emergency. The film’s gorgeous landscapes are beset by strange phenomena — storm clouds filled with green lightning, a thick and ominous fog — which exert a nebulous yet profound effect on the people who come across them.
Itto (Oumaïma Barid) is the wife of Amine (Mehdi Debhi), who comes from an obscenely wealthy family. Having married into wealth — her parents were simple peasants — the young and heavily pregnant woman grapples with feelings of inadequacy while simultaneously enjoying the luxuries of which her marriage affords. Exhausted by the more or less open hostility of her elitist mother-in-law (Souad Khouyi), Itto longs for some peace and quiet from her husband’s snobbish family, and her wish is soon granted when the rest of the household leaves for an excursion to a far-away city, leaving her with much-needed alone time in the palatial estate. Unfortunately, Itto’s candy-snacking idyll is short-lived, as reports start pouring in about the aforementioned strange phenomena occurring throughout the country.
A neighbor agrees to help reunite Itto with her husband by transporting her across the harsh desert, but not long after he abandons her in a small town, leaving the mother-to-be to fend for herself. The ambiguity of Alaoui’s script pays dividends as the townsfolk’s zonked-out, vaguely menacing stares seem to simultaneously telegraph class resentment — Itto’s fancy clothes stand out in a sea of sweaty T-shirts and dust-covered tracksuits — misogyny, and an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style hostile takeover. “I’m always disappointed when sci-fi films literalize everything,” the writer-director told Variety. “It’s more interesting to not see the aliens, to let the audience project their own idea onscreen.”
The Moroccan-born Alaoui weaves a dense web where gender, class, religion, and language intersect in a variety of ways without ever resorting to the cheap didacticism that many of her American indie peers have settled for. One or two moments of overt thematic signaling notwithstanding, Alaoui is content with letting the subtext be just that, communicating instead her most interesting ideas through visuals and tone. Operating in a detached register similar to Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, the filmmaker infuses her heady take on sci-fi with a strangeness that, at times, grows quite intense. Unfortunately, that strangeness is somewhat undercut by her decision to render the revelatory powers of the alien mist in disappointingly whimsical fashion, a misstep that, along with an on-the-nose needle drop early on, is remarkable in its wrongheadedness.
While the film’s post-desert revelation musings on the universe and human interconnectedness aren’t quite the payoff one would hope for after the intriguing and exceedingly well-crafted hour that preceded it, this does pave the way for a beautifully surreal final image: a lush landscape full of rich green, dissolving slowly into a starry night sky. It’s an image that, combined with the ponderous voiceover, evokes something supposedly remarked by Kafka to a seventeen-year-old Gustav Janouch: “Life is infinitely great and profound as the immensity of the stars above us. One can only look at it through the narrow keyhole of one’s personal experience. But through it, one perceives more than one can see.” Alaoui doesn’t quite knock it out of the park with her feature film debut, but her willingness to dwell on the obscure and meditative makes the prospect of a follow-up very exciting.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 5.