Director: Maryam Touzani (Morocco, France, Belgium, Qatar). Year of Release: 2021
Casablanca, the present day. A heavily pregnant woman is knocking on doors asking for work and somewhere to sleep. Having met no success, she lies on the floor opposite the house of a woman who is slightly older than her, and sells bread from her downstairs window. The older woman had rejected her but relents and offers her a place on her couch “for 2 or 3 days”.
The older woman is called Abla. She is abrupt and proud and Is not prone to small talk – think Suki from EastEnders. She has a cute 8-year old daughter straight out of central casting. The daughter is called Warda, after her mother’s favourite singer, though Abla no longer listens to her songs after the workplace accident that killed her husband. Warda’s father.
As the film progresses we learn that Samia, the pregnant woman, is equally proud. She is from a conservative village where kids born out of wedlock are marked as being born into sin, a stigma that they have to carry for life. Even in the big city, Abla introduces her to neighbours as her cousin from the sticks. Samia’s plan is to have the baby in Casablanca then give it away for adoption, so that it can lead a life unburdened by its origins and she can return to her family.
Despite Abla’s initial coldness, Samia slowly becomes part of the household, helping bake breadstuffs, and looking after Warda, who takes a shine to her. At one point there is a falling out, leading Abla first to banish Samia from her house, then to take Warda on a frantic search to make sure that her new friend (inasmuch as Abla allows friendship) is safe.
Adam is one of those films in which not much happens, but that doesn’t matter much. It is more about mood than plot. And in a reverse-Bechdel Test scenario, all the important parts are played by women and girls. Men get small walk on parts, most notably Slimani who unsuccessfully tries to woo an Abla who is still not ready for another relationship. But, in a rare and welcome reverse, the men’s function is to emphasize the needs and desires of the women.
Samia eventually has the child, which is a boy (called Adam, in case you were wondering about the title), but does everything that she can do to distance herself from him. Despite his crying, she refuses to breastfeed and asks Abla to keep him in her room. She wants to send him off for adoption before she grows any attachment, but its Eid so all the adoption agencies are closed.
Some critics have drawn the slightly wrong conclusion from Adam, and seem to believe that it is about the particularly pernicious institutional sexism of Islam (because women in Texas, Warsaw and Rio are having a whale of a time, right?). And, while some of the specific problems experienced by Samia and Abla may be slightly culturally specific, they are very familiar to those of us who grew up watching British kitchen sink dramas from the 1950s and 1960s.
Besides which, although the way in which women are mistreated may take different cultural forms, it is notable that this is a Moroccan film which is highlighting the sad but stubborn isolated lives of its largely female protagonists. In comparison to most dramas churned out by Hollywood and equivalents, Adam is a film which empowers women in a way which puts most other films to shade.
And although this is clearly a film about people’s relationships with each other, it does not require a gallant knight on a charger to burst in to solve all the women’s problems for them. For better or worse, they are perfectly capable of dealing with them on their own. And if they can’t cope, this is because of systemic problems, not the lack of a good, strong man.
The film is not perfect. Despite its 90ish minute running times, it is slow in parts, although if you’re a fan of food porn, maybe you’ll get more out of the extended cooking scenes than I did. The ending is ambiguous, which seems to have bothered some people, but all film and literature is made up. One thing could happen, but so could another, so why not let the audience decide?
This is not a film to challenge Bond or Dune in the special effects (though some of the street scenes in Casablanca are gorgeous), but if you’re after a slower, more thoughtful, sort of film, you’d do worse than giving it a go.