There’s a fine line between understated and underbaked, and Philippe Faucon’s Fatima, which won France’s César Award for Best Picture earlier this year, comes dangerously close to crossing it. Based loosely on autobiographical poems and essays by Fatima Elayoubi, a North African émigré to France, the film offers an unerringly modest slice-of-life tale about a Muslim immigrant family and the almost unbreachable generational divide between parents and children. Single mother Fatima (Soria Zeroual) wears a headscarf, lives a conservative, life and doesn’t speak French well, but she’s determined that her two girls have a better future.
Eighteen-year-old Nesrine (a mesmerizing Zita Hanrot) is the responsible one, planning to go to medical school but also worried that mom’s finances can’t bear the cost of her education and independence. Younger sister Souad (Kenza Noah Aïche), the wild child, skips school, gets in fights and hangs out with boys. The daughters speak French; Mom speaks Arabic. When their dad, who works in construction and has plenty of money to spend, shows up (rarely), he speaks French with the girls. They all get by, in their patchwork, polyglot way.
The film follows each character going about his or her days: Fatima looks to find as much cleaning work as she can — middle-class homes, big institutional spaces, anything. She’s confronted with challenges at each step. One employer tests her honesty (or so Fatima suspects) by leaving money in the pocket of unwashed pants. Her supervisor at another gig gets on her case for cutting out of work early to deal with a family crisis. But Fatima, though she lives an unassuming life and sacrifices everything for her daughters, has the soul of an artist: We regularly see her writing in notebooks as stray thoughts become extended ruminations and then in turn become poems. Nesrine, meanwhile, remains devoted to her studies, skipping out on partying with friends and resisting the advances of young men on the bus to focus on her books. Souad chills with her besties, staring down boys and men who make eyes at her just as she does teachers who get too authoritarian.
They also have to contend with the subdued bigotry surrounding them. In the opening scene, Nesrine and two friends get denied an apartment, clearly because the white real estate agent feels uncomfortable renting to North Africans. The other Muslim women in their own neighborhood also look askance at Fatima and her family, whom they think are turning their noses at the community. It’s not true, of course: Fatima and her daughters remain on the right side of every conflict and debate, it seems — never displaying pettiness, dishonesty, or even real weakness. Even Souad, for all her rebelliousness, usually only gets in fights out of loyalty to friends and family.
Faucon has built his story around very gentle, glancing blows. But this is not the focused austerity of a Robert Bresson; the director’s level distance and jaded eye lead more to lifelessness than a revealing simplicity of expression. Performances have been brought down to the point where everybody seems curiously bland and inert. Faucon seeks minimalism, but instead achieves something closer to avoidance — as if the filmmaker is afraid of emotion or showing these lives in all their messy realism.
Fatima has its heart in the right place, but there’s something dehumanizing about Faucon’s approach: These characters, it seems, are too important as representational objects to ever become real people. Meaning is conveyed not through behavior but through proclamations, as when Souad and Fatima argue over the fact that the latter’s poor French prevents her from being able to connect with her daughters. (A personal note: I can relate to some of this. Ever since my family’s earliest days in the U.S., I’ve spoken Turkish with my mom and English with my dad, and the fact that I was better at one language often meant that I favored interactions with one parent over the other, especially back when I was a pissy little assimilated teen. But Fatima’s depiction of this linguistic divide — and the cultural one it so often speaks to — left me cold.)
Still, the film is not without its lovely fragments. I’ve already noted Zita Hanrot’s turn as Nesrine. The young actress, who also won a César for her performance, seems able to convey the world in a glance; even the placid little smile on her face as she quietly pores over her textbooks evokes her hope for a better future. That’s certainly to the director’s credit, even if I did spend a lot of the movie wondering how Hanrot might fare with a part that actually gave her something to do. I also adored the final, hauntingly ambiguous image, which manages to leave us in a weird state of agonized uncertainty.
Perhaps the strongest elements, though, are the brief snippets of Fatima’s writing that we hear along the way. In these rare moments, the film’s preference for words over behavior is actually effective, perhaps because Fatima’s language possesses a lyricism the rest of the stubbornly flat dialogue lacks. All that may even be intentional: Fatima finds meaning and wonder in the workaday, after all, transforming it into simple, sublime poetry. If only she could work that same alchemy on the slight, surprisingly dull film that surrounds her.
Directed by Philippe Faucon
Opens August 26, Film Society of Lincoln Center