Sundance 2023 Review: ‘Animalia’

Many layers of menace emerge rather quickly in Sofia Alaoui’s feature debut from Morocco, Animalia. The film opens with a Kubriackian walkthrough of the baroquely decorated, nevertheless sterile home of Amine, husband to the film’s very pregnant protagonist Itto, who we finally discover in the one room in the house filled with life, sound, and pleasure: the kitchen. Itto is working there, alongside several young maids, cutting up a chicken as she listens to the other women’s gossip and Arabic pop. The entrance of Itto’s mother-in-law silences everyone. The maids, nearly standing at attention, look on uncomfortably as Itto finishes chopping through a tough joint. “Go change,” the older woman orders with quiet disdain, her manner seeming to confirm what Itto will confide later to her husband: she’s hated in that house, looked down upon, considered a penniless hick, no one Amine was meant to marry. As we learn, Itto, though she seems to have taken quite well to the high life, comes from much humbler stock. Her parents, she tells a friend later, were an embarrassment to her because they let their honesty be exploited, and they couldn’t just buy things as “others” did—others like Amine’s family, who are not only wealthy, but connected. They dine regularly with the provincial governor.

But Animalia is not just a tale of Itto’s struggles in the entangled webs of family, class, and power. The film’s original French title is Parmi nous, meaning “among us.” In Morocco, producer Margaux Lorier told her audience in Park City, the term has implications of wealth, of being part of the moneyed class. (French, the colonist’s tongue, is the common language of Morocco’s rich and educated in the film, while Berber is used by the lower classes.) But parmi nous, Lorier explained, may also be a reference to aliens, who, some believe, already live amongst us, remaining unnoticed—the poor, for example, and so many others, human and nonhuman alike. 

Bowing to his wife’s feelings of alienation, Amine makes an excuse for Itto with his family so she skip the clan’s latest social call to Khouribga, the provincial capital. For a few hours Itto revels in her solitary pleasures, until she receives word from Amine that a mysterious occurrence has drawn out the military, and roadblocks will keep the family away for some time. Meanwhile, strange weather phenomena have moved in—a weird funnel of fog over the nearby lake, a torrential rain—and something’s unsettling the wild and domestic animals all around. These last remain mostly unnoticed by Itto, who remains cloistered in the family mansion, turning to her faith for comfort in the darkness.

As the mystery of the disruptive event deepens, Itto is instructed to ride with a neighbor to reunite with the family in Khouribga. Interestingly, though the neighbor may live nearby, maybe even next door—whatever that means in the vast desert landscape where the film takes place—he’s nowhere near Amine’s social equal. Nevetheless, he loads Itto up alongside his own family for an uncomfortable ride on rough roads. Worse for Itto, her driver is not so compassionate as he seems, and she soon finds herself abandoned in a small mountain town, watched with equal predatory interest by groups of single men and the wandering pack of street dogs, the latter strangely attuned to some presence in the atmosphere beyond human perception.

For the devout, including Itto, this presence—which seems to bind sentient beings in strange ways—is easily labeled the Devil, a numinous threat from which only trust in God can provide protection. Certainly the acts of violence the presence inspires in animals and its subtle expressions of interspecies communication evoke an imminent horror in the viewer. But as Itto and her new guide, Fouad, ride through great ridges and canyons on the road to the capital, accompanied by a creepy young hitchhiker, a teen who’s clearly been stricken by the presence, the film’s horror is reframed as something closer to the sublime, a feeling of overwhelming awe in the presence of a phenomenon bigger than the individual, something too grand or terrible to be described. “Don’t let fear stop you,” the young passenger says to Itto as she initially resists what will be a transformative encounter for herself and Fouad. The latter, a nonbeliever, goes easily into this moment, less restrained by what he considers a hollow moral opposition to the alien presence. “God is for the rich,” he tells Itto with some bitterness. “If he exists,” he argues, “he’d help poor people…. If this is the Devil, I want to see him.”

The vision, rapture, or conversion Itto experiences in her moment of contact produces a new feeling about the lives around her that’s otherwise been impossible within the confines of the crassly capitalist social world she’d previously hoped would comfort her. In this respect, much more than horror or sci fi, Animalia reveals itself as a thoughtful, politically and ethically engaged imagining of the erasure of human dominance, of human motives, of the corrupt, or corrupted, nature of humanity full stop. It’s a film well worth viewing for its visuals alone, but its subtle and disturbing social and spiritual propositions, sensitively performed by a cast of mostly local actors, provide an even greater and provocative pleasure.

Michael Mejia
Michael Mejia
Novelist and University of Utah professor Michael Mejia is a veteran crew member of such Hollywood classics as Carnasaur, Love, Cheat, and Steal, and The Day My Parents Ran Away.

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