In the introduction to Slow Lightning, a book of poetry by Latin American poet Eduardo C. Corral, Carl Phillips writes: “Estrangement, Corral suggests, is many-sided. Not to belong anywhere in particular means somehow an ability to go anywhere in general, but always as a tourist, an outsider.” It is this sense of estrangement that guides Argentinean director, Maria Florencia Alvarez’s debut feature film, Habi, the Foreigner.
The opening shot introduces Analía, the 20-year-old protagonist who is from a small town in Argentina. She is poised in profile, leaning against a door at the far right of the screen, her reflection seeming to pull her back. The rest of the screen is filled with the empty space of a hallway.
Analía (Martina Juncadella) is tentative, doe-like, bored before she flies to Buenos Aires to deliver some handicrafts for her mother. Upon landing, an address mix-up leads her to a Muslim neighbourhood. Women in hijabs greet her with salaams as if she was one of them, and she mistakenly walks into a room where prayers are being held. Analía soon develops an interest in Islamic culture and decides to change her identity. Shortly after witnessing the prayers in Arabic, and hearing the sermon, spoken in Spanish, she takes the first step by adopting the name of “Habiba Rafat,” the name of a missing child that she sees on a poster.
The well-paced narrative develops as “Habi” begins to dress, speak and eat like her Muslim acquaintances. Her new identity lands her a job at a Lebanese restaurant where she takes a liking to Hassan, (Martin Slipak) a charming man who calls the owner “father,” but is not the son.
One may think of catastrophic conclusions given Habi’s innocence, her involvement with delivering packages (which she rarely ever opens), and donning the name of a missing child. However, my prejudices were slowly defused with moments of humour, such as Habi writing Arabic from right to left, and the focus on Habi’s burgeoning sexuality, emphasized by her interest in Hassan.
As she oscillates between excitement and caution; wanting to be independent, then calling her mother for solace a day later, it slowly becomes clear that Habi, the Foreigner is much like Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch—both protagonists are of a similar age, lack filial love, and grasp onto ritual and religion for a sense of self. Though lacking the ominous elements present in Hadewijch, suspense is maintained as her sexuality, newly formed identity, and friendships continue to push her outward.
The presence of doors, hallways, and empty spaces haunts almost every scene in Habi, the Foreigner. We see Habi constantly entering the frame, transgressing space, negotiating strangeness, growing into someone new, and ultimately, herself.
Because Habi, the Foreigner retains ambiguity while offering resolution, it may leave some viewers confused. Despite the slightly incongruous but pleasant soundtrack, Habi, the Foreigner succeeds at being a subtle film about individuation. Alvarez’s unique exploration of identity, and masterful toying with expectation will remain memorable after VLAFF 2014.