As Morocco’s own protest movement took shape, the monarchy’s response was immediate. King Mohammed VI canningly sidestepped the risk of being toppled just like Tunisia and Egypt’s longstanding leaders. Despite an Islamist led-government (the Justice and Development party (PDJ) and the traditional trappings of the ruling elite, King Mohammed took on a more modern, reformist image by offering a new Constitution guaranteeing, among others, gender equality. But the only steps forward made by the Moroccan society are baby steps and the clash between the progressive groups and the traditional institutions is imminent.
Best Screenplay Prize at Cannes Section Un Certain Regard, Meryem Benm’barek’s debut feature film SOFIA, unfolds against this backdrop as she depicts a young woman’s step from one category to the other – lawful and lawless – followed by a quick setback. The film deconstructs the Article 490 of the Moroccan Penal Code – that still makes it illegal to have sexual relations outside of marriage, – in a quite schematic way, firstly by quoting it via text on an intertitle and secondly by counterbalancing it with a fictional story that seeks the human element which the law is blind to.
But it’s exactly the usage of pre-fabricated, simple, never simplistic, elements such as this structure that gives Benm’barek’s film its charm. There’s something special about the way in which Sofia’s character is played by Maha Alemi. The pre-labour pain episode takes only a few minutes, and after that Sofia is mostly passive, shown in close shots that depict the tiredness and confusion on her face. This passivity reminds of Robert Bresson’s concept of “model”, an acting tehnique with its roots in Brechtian theory, taken by Benm’barek to a less radical level.
Sofia’s story begins with a pre-labour pain that would denote her pregnancy denial. The pain begins during a family dinner, a very bourgeois small ceremony of celebrating a future business that would bring Sofia’s family the kind of money it needs in order to keep up with Leila’s family.
The unexpected birth cracks this porcelain future and, aware of the Article 490, Sofia (Maha Alemi) and her cousin Leila (Lubna Azabal) become outlaws. The Moroccan Penal Code stipulates that “all persons of the opposite sex who are not related by marriage, and have sexual relations with each other, are punishable by imprisonment for one month to one year”. With this in mind, Leila tries o find out from Sofia who the father is due to the vicious circle they’re in: the hospital needs the father’s papers, their family would ask right away how to find him and the pressure of being caught by the authorities and be sent to jail is overwhelming. Sofia’s child might become a contagious so-called guilt for Leila and their entire family.
Sofia’s only way of returning to lawfulness is a man who’d become the father. The practice was introduced to spare family shame and can be found across the Middle East and other countries as well (India, Afghanistan, etc.). A violated girl is still considered a huge stain on the honour of the family. As for the one in the film, it is preferable to marry daughters off rather than let people know that they were raped as it would be if they would file a report. Concepts such as purity, family and belonging to a man are still part of the status quo, and Benm’barek introduces Leila as a counterexample.
The new code of family law adopted in 2004 raised the minimum marriage age for women to 18 from 15; women are no longer required to have a male guardian approve their marriage, the rape marriage law – which allowed a rapist to evade punishment by marrying his victim. – was repealed , but much of the old order remains untouched in Morocco and even women may be reluctant to challenge Islamic traditions in the currently period of transition. Judges may approve much younger unions, often qualifiable as forced marriage, sexual harassment is largely unchecked and sexual relations outside marriage are still criminalized. The human face of the negative side effects brought by these laws is Sofia. Meryem Benm’barek’s film is a collection of masterfully directed glimpses of women facing institutionalized oppression as part of so-called tradition even in the currently period of transition.