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"Habi, The Foreigner"
Habi, The Foreigner
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Based on this year’s entries from Latin America, the continent’s economic coming of age has brought with it, perhaps inevitably, a questioning of identities.
One particularly disquieting vision of a rootless struggle that gets under the skin and stays there is Maria Florencia Alvarez’ aptly titled Habi, the Foreigner (Habi, la Extranjera). Traveling from rural Argentina to Buenos Aires to deliver artisanal goods, Analia (the titular Habi) is officially due to return home and take over the family hairdressing business. Having been misdirected, she finds herself in the depths of Buenos Aires' Muslim community. She takes part in a religious ceremony and hears the Prophet’s injunction to live life as if one were a stranger, ‘a traveler who arrives in a place that doesn’t belong to him and from which he can take just the bare essentials to subsist’. These words speak to her state of emotional insecurity and an unarticulated dislike of what she perceives as libertine cosmopolitan culture. She’s subsequently handed some charity items: a Farsi recipe, a tunic and a map. These she takes, selects the name Habi from a missing person’s advert and assumes the life of that girl, fobbing off her mother with a series of excuses, finding a job in a Muslim-run store and attending Islamic instruction classes.
It’s a daring premise, and the fact that it works is down largely to Martina Juncadella in the role of Analia/Habiba, whose quiet, concentrated features occupy every scene as she works through the implications of her choices, on the people whose affection she receives, and encourages, under false pretenses. In this coming of age movie, there are no easy choices: just the realization that being a stranger to others is not as bad as being a stranger to yourself.
In an equally engrossing examination of identity crisis, Santiago Losa’s La Paz choses a very different route to tell the story of Ricardo, a young Argentine released from psychiatric care to his parents. Those around him have imposed some version of meaning on their lives: his mother does water-colours and exists in a state of middle-class anxiety, his father works a lot, his gran is old and tolerant. As a vacuous extension of their lives, Ricardo’s own life is meaningless, reflected in Losa’s formal division of the narrative into a series of generically titled chapters. “The Garden”, “The Motorbike”, “The Flowers”, “Time”, etc. combine to create an arbitrary framework of signifiers without concrete reference. The only person attached to significant reality is the family maid from Bolivia, homesick for La Paz. She introduces the possibility of feeling at home somewhere, of physically belonging and being defined by hard realities rather than floating in medication-induced calmness. When she announces her return home, a meltdown appears inevitable.
As always, when formal principle is involved, success depends on the director’s ability to lure audiences into layers that demand our attention beyond foreground narrative. In this case, it’s worth the effort: the final episode shows Ricardo breaking out and becoming a meaningful part of society. Significantly, that society is not Argentine – but with directors such as Losa (and Alvarez) exposing aspects of identity crises with such perception and restrained affection, things are still looking good.