César Best Picture Winner Fatima meditates on language barriers and what it takes to become French. Gillie Collins reviews the film at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.
Philippe Faucon’s Fatima — which just won three César awards, including France’s prize for best picture — is a tender, understated meditation on making a home in a new land. In its opening scene, Fatima (Soria Zeroual), a recent immigrant from Morocco, and her daughter Nesrine (Zita Hanrot), a medical student, are looking for a new apartment in Lyon. They wait in the hallway, discussing Fatima’s impressions of the neighbourhood. When the real estate agent arrives, she claims the key is missing. “It’s the headscarf,” Fatima laments as she walks away. “She kept staring.”
The film is based on Prière à la Lune (Prayer to the Moon), a book of poetry and lyric essays by Moroccan-born author Fatima Elayoubi, who, like the film’s protagonist, worked as a cleaning lady to support her two daughters. In the film, Fatima is divorced, and the everyday burdens of parenting fall on her shoulders. She stocks Nesrine’s fridge with couscous and pesters her younger daughter Souad (Kenza-Noah Aiche) about her homework. At work and at home, she is committed to the thankless, invisible labour of caretaking.
But Fatima is also a writer. Her sense of self depends on her ability to name her thoughts and feelings. Whether she is scrubbing bathtubs for wealthy French women or doing her daughter’s laundry, she strives to record and share her experiences. Writing allows Fatima to process her surroundings and make sense of her journey. In an early scene, she writes in her notebook on the train. The seat next to her is empty, but she is clearly in conversation, scribbling intently and re-reading her work to herself. Through the window, the world whizzes by, casting shadows on her desk.
In order to survive in France, Fatima must not only teach herself a new language but also adopt new norms of communication. The disconnect between her inner world and the way she is perceived is alienating. At a meeting with Souad’s teacher, Fatima doesn’t assert herself or ask the questions she planned to. Laurent Fenart’s cinematography evokes Fatima’s isolation and confusion: her visage is in perfect focus, but the teacher and other parents are blurry. Later, Fatima describes the experience to one of her Arabic-speaking friends: “I sat there knowing what a parent-teacher meeting is, but I didn’t speak like the other women.”
Not speaking French is especially hard for Fatima because she is a writer. Faucon portrays the trauma of this linguistic alienation with compassion. When Fatima stays up late to write in her journal, a close-up of her notebooks reminds us that she is writing in Arabic, rather than French. In an Arabic voice-over, she says, “I’m less frightened now.” We get the sense that Fatima is most comfortable when she inhabits her native language instead of forcing her thoughts and feelings into a foreign mold.
Fatima even feels misunderstood and irrelevant in her own home, where language barriers reflect the distance between first- and second-generation immigrants. When Souad speaks in French and Fatima in Arabic, they talk past each other. Conversations about who Souad dates and what she wears quickly turn into arguments. In one scene, Fatima asks to see her homework, and Souad says, “How? You can’t read.” As Souad assimilates into French culture, she questions Fatima’s authority and challenges her traditions.
Nesrine’s methods of “becoming French” are more in line with those of her mother. As a medical student, she must rewire her brain to see and think in a new language. Nesrine attends lectures on embyogenesis, while her mother takes French classes. We watch mother and daughter diligently taking notes in their respective classrooms. Like her mother, Nesrine does homework on the train and stays up late to memorize her notes. They are both students of the heart: Nesrine studies its anatomy, and Fatima writes poems.
But both women are also under tremendous pressure. Nesrine feels the full weight of her mother’s sacrifices and is beside herself with stress. She cries frequently and is too embarrassed to go to parties. Eventually she rebels in her own way. In a crucial scene, she calls her father out on his sexist double standards: “But for you, it’s only women who shouldn’t smoke,” she says. Towards the end of the movie, she even starts to date a white boy. When he dances in his underwear, we see her laugh for the first time.
Fatima also finds relief from her stress; for her, creative expression is a saving grace. After she injures her arm at work, doctors can’t locate her pain on the x-ray. They connect her with a psychologist, who speaks Arabic and urges Fatima to share her work. Instead of reverting to voice-over, Faucon shows Fatima reading her work aloud. The therapist — and audience surrogate — listens intently. Fatima’s voice grows bolder with every word.
At a time when France and other EU countries are debating stricter immigration policies, Faucon reminds us of the many ways immigrants contribute to their adopted countries. Fatima is a movie that demands to be seen about a woman who demands to be heard. She captivates.