Sundance Review: “Animalia” Explores Unsettling Beauty
Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | January 31st, 2023
Animalia (Sofia Alaoui, 2023) 3 out of 4 stars.
Director Sofia Alaoui’s debut feature, Animalia, is often a deliriously enigmatic work of art, weaving in and out of direct confrontations with meaning in ways both tantalizing and frustrating. Buoyed by a gripping central performance from actress Oumaïma Barid, the movie places her character, Itto, in dire circumstances when she is at her most vulnerable, pregnant and alone. Layering unsettling allusions to sci-fi classics, like the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or something far more modern such as the 2016 Arrival, on top of her elliptical plot, Alaoui mixes sharp social commentary with a nightmarish alien invasion (or is it?). One thing is certain: it’s impossible to look away.
Itto comes from a very different background than her wealthy husband, Amine, and his family, who are part of the Moroccan elite. They speak French and Arabic at home, while her original tongue is Berber. And though Amine loves Itto dearly, his mother sees her as an interloper. It’s no wonder, then, that she looks forward to some alone time when the clan heads off to a nearby city on a business errand. She will soon wish she had gone with them.
For a major storm hits the area, though it quickly begins to seem like something more than a natural phenomenon. A convoy of military trucks drives by, phone signals are spotty, and the roads are blocked. So Amine arranges, from afar, for a neighbor to take Itto to him using a family vehicle. That neighbor proves unreliable, and before long Itto finds herself even further away, in the mountains, with no one to help. Except for a friendly German Shepherd. It doesn’t take long for the dogs and other surrounding animals to begin to act strangely. Something is very amiss.
Cinematographer Noé Bach (Anaïs in Love) makes sure that every image here stuns through precise framing and gorgeous colors, the camera its own unique character. The original title of the movie, in French, is “Parmi nous,” which translates as “in our midst,” a notion which applies just as well to Bach’s lens as to the mysterious (possible?) extraterrestrials who have landed and affected the fauna (including humans) to such an extreme degree. Evocative visuals swirl in and out of our line of sight, inviting us forward into a new universe of strange possibilities.
Unfortunately, despite these strong elements, Alaoui doesn’t quite stick the landing, Animalia‘s many threads not quite coalescing into narrative coherence at the end. On the other hand, that is perhaps not entirely off topic, given the existential chaos the protagonist goes through. Whatever the individual viewer’s takeaway, the unsettling, often poignant, collection of elements makes for an invigorating spectator experience, and I am all here for that.