When I first read the tagline of Sofia Alaoui’s "Animalia," I was intrigued. “A young pregnant woman finds emancipation as aliens land in Morocco.” At best, I expected to watch an alien-invasion science fiction film like M. Night Shyamalan’s "Signs" or Jordan Peele’s "Nope." To my surprise, I found that "Animalia" has more in common with Terrence Malick’s "The Tree of Life," Stanley Kubrick’s "2001: A Space Odyssey," and Denis Villeneuve’s "Arrival." For a film that tackles such high concepts with a minor budget, "Animalia" is meticulously crafted and beautifully composed.
The film premiered at this year's Sundance film festival, and was recently acquired for distribution by Egypt’s Film Clinic, as headed by producer Mohamed Hefzy. "Animalia" is expected to screen at more festivals around the world before a wide release.
Astonishingly, this is the French-Moroccan filmmaker’s debut feature film. Her first short film, "So What If the Goats Die," won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize in 2020 before winning a César award for Best Short Film in 2021. Sofia Alaoui describes "Animalia" as “a human odyssey. An ode to nature and the question of the place of the human in this complex world.” The idea came to her when she returned to Morocco after spending years abroad, when Alaoui was confronted with the dogma of religion and humanity’s obsession with money as a means to reach happiness. Coming face to face with an ideology that tries to fit you into a mold would alienate anyone, like an outsider visiting an unrecognizable home from far beyond. To say this film resonated deeply resonated with me on a spiritual level would be an understatement.
We are all born into a society where a set of principles laid down by an authority is blindly and undisputedly taken as fact. Sometimes these principles—legal, religious, or cultural—create social barriers that separate us from one another instead of bringing us closer together. "Animalia" is about the interconnectedness of everything in the universe. It challenges the notion that women should conform to a set of rules in order to fit in or be perceived as good, and it defies the idea that men have a certain role to fulfill to be accepted in society. "Animalia" shows us that no matter how much society categorizes us through social stratification, be it based on wealth, income, sexuality, beliefs, or otherwise, at the end of the day, we are all cut from the same cloth. It subtly builds up to the idea that all living things, human and nonhuman, are connected to the cosmos.
The film is filled with these philosophical musings about time and our place in the universe without ever spoon-feeding us any answers. It merely questions. "Animalia" revolves around Itto (Oumaïma Barid), a pregnant woman who finds herself alone after her husband leaves on a business trip. During his absence, the presence of a supernatural entity or higher being disrupts society as a whole. The whole country descends into chaos. The masses flock toward places of worship, desperately trying to find solace and peace. And as the world is confronted with the reality that we are not alone, Itto embarks on an existential journey that makes her question the indoctrinated narrative surrounding her since birth.
Itto's surreal journey through the otherworldly landscapes of Morocco is an allegory of our travels through time in search of truth and meaning. Some of the imagery in this film is ethereal and intimidating in the best possible way. It reminded me of the feeling you get when up look at the black emptiness of cosmic space. The more you attempt to grasp its vastness, the more insignificant you realize you are. There is one achingly beautiful sequence in "Animalia" when Itto encounters an extra-terrestrial weather phenomenon. After walking into the celestial storm, she experiences a spiritual rebirth, and her whole belief system collapses. Through this peak into the timeless vistas of the cosmos, Itto learns that the universe is multifaceted and that the physical world is only one part of a bigger whole.
The film delves into our capacity to make meaning from our environment through purposive consciousness and reflective action. The characters in "Animalia" experience a seismic shift in their understanding of being and how human agency has always been intertwined with non-human agency given the ecological forces surrounding us. Cinema rarely delves into the interconnectedness of human and nonhuman beings, but "Animalia" remarkably takes a Daoist approach in positioning humanity as part of the natural world. It utilizes breathtaking aesthetics to give us a better perception of our place within the cosmos. "Animalia" aims for a holistic view of the world, the oneness of all things.
Perhaps what I found most impressive about Sofia Alaoui’s film is that it manages to look outwards and inwards simultaneously. The film captures a balanced connection between outer landscapes, such as the cosmos, and the inner landscapes of human consciousness. Our main character goes through a spiritual transformation as the world around her is changing. The cosmic event surrounding her is merely a reflection of her inner state.
Alaoui uses minimal visual effects, yet the film looks and feels more realistic than most big-budget science fiction films. It also helps how Alaoui uses a documentary style of filmmaking to reinforce her cinematic world. In fact, most of the cast in "Animalia" are non-professional actors; the faces of these non-actors are as significant and memorable as the landscapes in the backdrop within any given scene. Oumaïma Barid and Mehdi Dehbi deliver standout performances as two lost souls who find one another in extraordinary circumstances.
It is so refreshing to see a filmmaker expressing their deepest inner thoughts with such bravery and sensitivity. "Animalia" lingered in my thoughts long after the credits started rolling, and I look forward to revisiting this sci-fi gem time and time again. Alaoui’s film seamlessly blends the real with the surreal, the natural with the supernatural, the material with the spiritual, and the end result is nothing short of transcendental.