Discovering Beauty in Difference

in 10th Dubai International Film Festival

by Mario Abbade

Leaving inland Argentina to make a life in Buenos Aires, a 20-year-old girl – the title character of Habi, the Foreigner (Habi, la extranjera) – knocks on the door of a small hotel. She is greeted by a little girl who insists on saying “Hi!” and “Hello!” and “Good night,” instead of speaking in Spanish. We know almost nothing about the background of Habi’s trip, except the fact that she has a relative in some part of the country, from whom she receives instructions and directions. Before arriving at the half-board guesthouse – where she will receive lessons in femininity – the traveler will inadvertently stumble into a Muslim ceremony.

During this Islamic funeral ritual, Habi – with her long blond hair, bourgeois origins, and curious eyes – discovers a different culture to be explored. She pretends to be what she is not, in order to find out the inner workings of this new reality. In the process she comes to recognize aspects of herself she never understood before: her identity, what gives her pleasure, the way she loves. 

This film, by the 36-year-old director María Florencia Alvarez, had its premiere at the Berlinale. Alvarez is known for her short films such as Nena (2010) and Perro Negro (2005). Habi, the Foreigner received the support of Walter Salles’ Videofilmes, so that it became a Brazilian co-production. The green-and-yellow tone of this film is enhanced by the supporting presence of Maria Luisa Mendonça, one of the greatest Brazilian actors.

Habi (Martina Juncadella) seems to be the archetypical innocent, with her submissive looks and fear of polyphony. But she has a false identity: although she was named Análía at birth, she decides to assume the name of Habiba Rafat in order to mix with these Muslim Argentines. Staying at this small hotel, she begins to take on the habits of the social group with which she is fascinated. She adopts the veil without fearing its symbolism, begins to learn Arabic, studies prayers which will take her close to Allah, gains the confidence of a Lebanese vendor, and flirts with a young Muslim man. It seems that Anália wants to became Habiba and will do anything to achieve this, no matter how dishonest her acts may seem.

Although she is busy with her Islamic quest, Analía/Habi witnesses some bad behavior in the micro-world of her hotel. This includes violent episodes of aggression towards Margarita (Mendonça), a Brazilian who has left her son back home and adopted a brutal mad boyfriend as consolation. Margarita becomes Habi’s closest friend, showing her the good side of a bad life. 

All the parts of Habi’s sentimental education are mapped by the strategic narration of Alvarez. Julián Apezteguia’s camera does not obey the polite conventions of the Argentinian melodrama. It performs spasm-like movements which are gestures of strangeness, representing the character’s encounter with new experiences, beliefs and smells. The movement of the camera reflects the surprise of the young girl. 

This kind of cinematography is more often used to depict Jewish customs. But in Habi, the Foreigner, we see evidence of the new layers of a plural society. This plurality is exposed by Alvarez without value judgments and with the generosity of discovery.

Edited by Lesley Chow