Once in awhile, an unknown film will cause such a stir at a festival it will be required viewing for everyone in attendance. Standing in line at AFI Film Festival, one woman told me she did not need food or water after watching Houda Benyamina‘s Divines. After that the answer to, “What’s your favorite film at the festival,” was mostly Divines. With just one more screening I knew I couldn’t miss it.
Sitting in the theater on my final day at the festival I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew the film was about impoverished, young women in a coming-of-age story. I knew it was a French language film. I didn’t know I would like a morality tale.
Traditionally morality tales are heavy handed and meant to shame or corrupt an audience into behaving properly. Every once in awhile, however, a film comes along with a strong message that reads more like desperation than damnation. Divines weaves together first love, religious identity, youth poverty, and then pure rage into a haunting story.
Divines follows the story of Dounia, Oulaya Amamra, and Maimouna, Deborah Lukumuena two Muslim teens living in a French slum. The two have a kind of hetero life partnership reserved for young women. They spent every moment they can spare together, but they are headed down two very separate paths.
Lukumuena is a revelation. As a fellow big girl, it was rewarding to see someone like her on film. Her dark skin, gap tooth, endless confidence, and perfectly-timed humor make her one to watch. Maimouna is a well-behaved daughter of the Imam of the local mosque. Hanging with Dounia allows her to flirt with danger. They steal and spit on dancers from the rafters of the theater, but at the end of the day, Maimouna goes home to pray with and be loved by her family.
This isn’t an option for, Dounia.
Dounia is responsible for her alcoholic mother who can barely keep a job. She collects water and hand-cranks her shower to help her mother clean herself. She steals for the thrill and to earn some money. When she steals drugs from a low-level hand and returns the product to the local drug lord, she finds herself under new employment. She’s also falling in love for the first time. This unstable environment combined with a healthy dose of hormones sends Dounia spiraling out of control and very quickly in over her head.
Amamra gives an absolutely knockout performance as Dounia. True rage is challenging to embody. There are many quality examples from male performers Denzel Washington in Training Day, Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, Peter Finch in Network, etc. But, it’s rare to see rationally angry women written for the screen. Mary Tyler Moore skirts quiet rage in Ordinary People and Charlize Theron is all out crazy in Monster. Perhaps the best example of a female performance of rage would be Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The difference between these performances and what Amara is able to accomplish is these characters are drunks, mentally handicapped, abused, and had years of jaded life. Dounia is so young but her abandonment (she’s a “bastard”), and general neglect leave a pure form of rage — the kind of rage that comes from wanting to be acknowledged. It’s an emotion many can identify with, but is rarely explored in cinema.
This coming-of-age story handles the delicate balance of seeking but being unable to come to terms with religion. Dounia, after being physically beaten, has a moment where she heard prayer. This could be her rock bottom, but that pure rage won’t let her turn to something lighter. Like most living in poverty, she has one goal: cash.
In a world where ‘cash is king’ isn’t even debatable, a film calling this motto into question is a refreshing image. Even if viewers don’t hold religious beliefs the themes of friendship, family, abuse, and survival is presented with such raw force the passion resonate long after the final reel has stopped spinning. Divines will be available on Netflix starting November 18th.