Divines, a French film, was nominated for Best Motion Picture-Foreign Language at this year’s Golden Globes (lost to Elle). Houda Benyamina, who won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for this work, directs it. The Camera d’Or award is for the best first film from the official selection. It is a prestigious award and I am not surprised Divines took a prize. The story engrossed me from beginning to end. The way the movie was filmed adds even more to this story of poverty, dreams, and friendship.
It takes place in a very poor slum in Paris somewhere, a place I never saw when I visited the grand city. Dounia (Oulaya Amamra) and her best friend Maimouna (Deborah Lukumuena) are shoplifters and schemers, despite the guidance of Maimouna’s father who is a priest.
Dounia becomes impatient with having so little money, and the family often does not have enough to eat, so she seeks out the tutelage of a drug dealer, Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda). The money starts rolling in.
Dounia becomes attracted to a dancer, Djigui (Kevin Mischel), whom she sees auditioning and rehearsing on stage at a theater. He would have been a good influence on her had they gotten together sooner I think.
She makes some bad choices, very bad choices, so don’t expect a happy ending. Her mother is a basket case, and she has no father. School bores her and she doesn’t see anything positive coming out of her attendance.
The film is subtitled and easy to follow, and I found it fascinating. The world that the best friends live in is multi-cultural, multi-racial, diverse in terms of religion, and supremely poor. It was definitely a part of France I was unaware of. They get by as best they can. There are no other shining examples of success to lean on. The makeup of these people is the same as in any impoverished country; no hope, no role models, little in the way of assistance for anything. I found particularly distressing the lack of water in their little tin shacks they called home.
The contrast between Djigui and Dounia is striking. He has hope for his future, whereas she does not. His dancing is raw and passionate, kind of like Dounia herself. Djigui is able to go after his dreams in a culturally acceptable way as a dancer; Dounia does not.
Divines is filmed engagingly, the interactions between the characters are realistic, and the acting is very good. It will definitely make you think about the world many people live in, and consider the extreme poverty some people are born into and their almost futile attempts to make it out. Houda Benyamina made me care about these girls, so that when tragedy strikes, it is heartbreak.
Even though I am calling Divines a tragedy, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it. I admired the storytelling that illuminated a little piece of life on earth I didn’t know existed. You can watch it on streaming Netflix.