Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Philippe Faucon's FATIMA: France's Best Picture winner opens in U.S. theaters

The French, in my humble opinion, have long been perverse -- culturally, socially, politically, sexually, you-name-it-ly -- and this is, to a large extent, part of the country's charm and appeal, especially to some of us Americans who might like to be a bit more sophisticated but may lack the wherewithal. That country's choice this year of FATIMA as its César-winning Best Picture award would seem to bear this out. I can't think of a Best Picture choice from a European nation as unusual and oddly challenging since perhaps Spain's Goya Award to Solitary Fragments (La soledad) back in 2008.

There is little beyond the Best Picture selection that the two films share -- except their superior quality and the fact that they were such a surprise choice. Jaime Rosales' Spanish masterpiece about (among other things) society, family, caring and terrorism runs two hours and fifteen minutes, while Philippe Faucon's (the filmmaker is shown at right) look at the immigrant experience in France lasts all of a mere 75 minutes. Yet in terms of reach and grasp coalescing, the film is near perfect.

If TrustMovies had been voting for this particular award, his choice would have been Marguerite over Fatima for reasons of ambition, challenge and execution, though he loves both movies very much. And god knows, immigration (particularly from Arab countries) remains the hot-button issue worldwide and especially in France where, since (and probably long prior to) The Battle of Algiers, movies have been responding to life and political situations.

M. Faucon's film is simplicity itself, using a quiet documentary style to depict the life of an immigrant family in which the mother, the eponymous Fatima (played, in her acting debut, with self-effacing gravity and style by Soria Zeroual, shown above and further above), is a cleaning lady who works long hours to support her two daughters. Her husband (Chawki Amari, below, right) has left her for another woman, though he does make occasional appearances, gifting his daughters with merchandise like a new pair of sneakers.

One daughter, a pretty teen played with haughty, angry rebellion by newcomer Kenza Noah Aïche (above, left), can't seem to stifle that anger and so makes her mother's life more hellish than it needs to be, Fatima's older daughter, Nessrine (played by Zita Hanrot, below, left, of Eden and The New Girlfriend) is about to enter medical school and desperately needs more money, not to mention more confidence, to manage this. It is a testament to the filmmaker's skill that he handles all three actresses, as well as the rest of his diverse cast -- fledglings and pros -- so well that they appear a most believable family, within the fuller society at large.

Not all that much "event" takes place throughout the movie, but what there is proves enough -- along with the utter truthfulness of how Faucon dramatizes what we see -- to capture our mind and heart. I don't remember ever experiencing such enormous and unadulterated joy at a character's success as I felt at the close of this film. (I believe that is Zakaria Ali-Mehidi, above, right, who plays Nessrine's new friend Sélim.) How M. Faucon introduces us to cultural habits involving dating and sexuality, as well as how important image and reputation are to the older generation, is handled particularly well -- with an understanding of both the positive and negative aspects involved.

Faucon, as director and co-writer, shows us how especially difficult life can be for immigrants like our heroine, who do not learn to speak and write French. Late in the film, writing in her own language, Fatima demonstrates a keen intelligence, as well as poetic gift, as she describes a generic, all-purpose Fatima, without whose help and care, the French-speaking "white" populace could barely exist.

The blessings and rewards of a film like this one may be diminutive and quiet, but they are all the more impressive for the way their small size turns into vast scope. From Kino-Lorber, Fatima opens this Friday, August 26, in New York City at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and then on September 16 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal. Elsewhere? Let's hope that, once word-of-mouth grows a bit, the film will find further venues. Click here and then click on PLAYDATES to keep up with future bookings.

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