With Fatima, writer-director Philippe Faucon offers a calmly observed snapshot of its titular character (Soria Zeroual), a Moroccan immigrant living in Lyon, who struggles to provide for her two daughters, 18-year-old Nesrine (Zita Hanrot) and 15-year-old Souad (Kenza Noah Aïche), by cleaning houses and imparting wisdom whenever she has a moment’s downtime. Faucon’s focus limits outside perceptions, whether from onlookers or community members, by placing Fatima’s compassionate traditionalism at the core of each scene. The narrative choice often makes for compelling character development and numerous heart-to-hearts between Fatima and her daughters, but truncates a more stringent take on the socio-economic circumstances that inform the lives on display.
The film opens with Nesrine and several of her friends being denied a tour of an available apartment because the landlord claims to have been unable to procure the key in time. Fatima, who tagged along to check out the place, speculates upon leaving that the rejection is due to her headscarf. Séverine (Edith Saulnier), one of Nesrine’s white, French friends, attributes it to them being “three girls, two of whom are North African.” As an entry point into the lives of these characters, the scene is a tidy announcement of discrimination that besets non-whites. Later, when Fatima returns some money to her employer that she finds while doing the woman’s laundry, the response that she gets suggests some sort of deceit. The moment chills for its implicit recognition of Fatima’s helplessness and fear of what lies ahead, but Faucon subsequently frames the dilemma as one of guilt or innocence by having Fatima wonder if her employer is testing her. By engaging the tension between the two as a matter of suspense instead of theme, the scenario loses a deeper assessment of the employer’s potentially insidious racism.
Fatima scales its artistry to fit each new scene by valuing immediacy and resolving visible conflict over any greater sense of its characters’ struggles or sense of displacement. Since Fatima can’t speak French well, the film, along the way, sprinkles in scenes of her writing diary entries in Arabic and lamenting her inability to communicate with her daughters. Nesrine, who’s in her first year of medical school, is placed in scenarios that challenge her devotion to studying, whether it’s a cute boy she meets on a train, her younger sister’s rebellious behaviors, or coming up short on the rent each month. Yet Faucon depicts the family’s financial struggle without locating its accompanying anxiety. When Nesrine and Fatima pawn some antique Algerian jewelry for quick cash, the scene cheapens their sacrifice by providing no greater assessment of the forces that dictate such a gross abdication of cultural artifacts in the name of keeping the lights on.
The film’s fundamental shortcomings are the result of Faucon’s individual-focused humanism, which invests in articulating character struggle rather than the problems of the system that engenders strife in the first place. Perhaps that’s due, in part, to the film’s successive adamancy that there’s actually nothing flawed about France’s socio-economic structures beyond individuals who exploit power for personal gain. After all, when Fatima injures her arm and is unable to work, she’s mostly met with compassion and understanding by her head employer and health officials. At school, Nesrine studies hard for her exams and is treated fairly by the process. It’s only Souad, stubborn and angry with her mother for not being able to speak French, who seems unable to understand that if she could just learn some discipline and commit herself to hard work, things will ultimately pay off.
At least, that’s the dubious narrative spun by the film’s naïve optimism. That disposition also informs an exchange between Nesrine and Leila (Dalila Bencherif), where the latter admits to getting pleasure from sex. Faucon positions the brief revelation as a moment of progress in its recognition of each woman’s sexual liberty, yet it unfolds as if it were devised to be just that, with pandering intentions directed at presumptively Western, liberal viewers. There are no real dangers in Fatima aside from the momentary aches of growing pains. When Souad has an outburst, Fatima exclaims: “You drive me so mad I could go out without a headscarf!” The line, played awkwardly for both laughs and pathos, epitomizes the film’s contrived disposition.