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  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz

Divines

A Cinematic Wonder For The Moment


Way too many films that tackle poverty rely on endangerment by subjecting their characters to narratives in which they are merely innocent stand-ins for stories with themes of suffrage and affliction. Stories that deal with the darkest of subject matters will always be relevant. We don’t have enough of them and I’ll even admit that there are times when ambiguity is necessary for some characters and their complexities are best served as enigmas. I don’t want that to be used as an excuse for filmmakers to constantly leave the most crucial of characters undeveloped or unexplored. Slow-paced films usually prioritize substance over audience expectations and spend more time on what it’s like for the characters to live within their circumstances. These characters may not always have the agency they deserve but they’re more than symbolic pawns of minority experiences. It was from this kind of approach that Uda Benyamina’s Divines was able to flourish into the cinematic wonder it is.


Two teenage girls living on the outskirts of Paris, Dounia (Oulaya Amamra who is Benyamina’s younger sister) and her best friend Maimouna (Deborah Lukumuena in a heartfelt performance that won her the Cesar award for Best Supporting Actress) hustle for money by shoplifting from supermarkets and than reselling their stolen goods to their classmates. These girls, while closer than most blood-related sisters must be, are polar opposites. Dounia is confrontational, impulsive, relatively immature, and very reckless. Maimouna is more patient, observant, hopeful, and practical. Dounia lives with her highly immature mother Myriam (Majdouline Idrissi) and Maimouna lives with her deeply devout Muslim parents. Both girls desperately want more for themselves and seek a way out by saving money after getting hired by local and very successful drug dealer Rebecca (A frightening and often scene-stealing Jisca Kalvanda). Rebecca’s ability to rely on Dounia and Maimouna demotes her current employer Samir (Yasin Houicha) to drive the girls to meet with various clients much to his visible and verbally childish irritation.


He gets his revenge when after failing to pick up the girls late at night, they arrive at Dounia’s to find him and Myriam having sex. Enraged, Dounia attacks him and then drives on her new motorbike with Maimouna to the car (Knowing it belongs to his mother) shatters the glass, pours gasoline all over it, and sets it on fire. A riot between the police and locals breaks out and attempts to flee are unsuccessful. Maimouna’s mother loudly berates Dounia and Myriam tearfully pleads with her daughter that she’s sorry and she’ll do better. Dounia ignores her mother’s distress and gets in Rebecca’s car where a furious Rebecca insults her for bringing attention to her illegal business.


Dounia’s closest thing to happiness outside of her sincere sisterhood with Maimouna is her growing relationship with Djigui (Kevin Mischel), an untrained yet dedicated and passionate dancer whose talent soon allows an opportunity for him to travel on tour. He’s genuinely kind and like Dounia, gets by on very little and looks for opportunity. He’s looking for it through what he loves while Dounia and Mimouna clearly got involved with some very shady people. He and Dounia didn’t have the best start but he’s very forgiving and extends an invitation for her to travel with him hoping some distance will awaken a positive enlightenment in her.


No one needs to be reminded that survival and illegal practices intersect more often than not, but Divines goes much deeper than other drug trade dramas because it portrays such a causal regularity itself. Driving to various clients is filmed as though they’re stopping to pick up dry cleaning. I really have a high regard for how Benyamina worked (Tirelessly I’m sure) on focusing on who these individuals are as people but also developing them enough so that literally everything they do comes across as realistic. The choices they make are based on who they were, who they are now, and who they are gradually becoming.


Dounia especially, has such a ferocious rage to her that while not always used to her benefit seems fully justified. In a particularly haunting scene, she absolutely loses it on her teacher who’s job training her and who shows signs of extreme naiveness to the harsh circumstances of her many students. The other students howl with laughter as Dounia’s rage turns to humor that comes from gaining the upper hand and verbally abuses her teacher to the point of wet-soaked tears and screams for Dounia to get out. The film does not give multiple problems for the characters to solve rather than make do with. It’s all one big problem that stretches itself out like elastic as the film carries on and is all the more clever and realistically thrilling for it.


The portrayal of dance in film has always fascinated me. Dance symbolizes so much and says what everyone cannot without words. A gorgeous sequence of Djigui dancing with such poise intersects with Dounia being brutally attacked by an older man whose money Rebecca assigned her to get. The man kicks her, brutalizes her face, and then tries to rape her but as Djigui’s dance grows more passionate, beautiful, and empowering and the classical music starts to get louder, Dounia gains the upper hand. Djigui soars in his movements as Dounia knocks her attacker to the ground and goes to town on him with a fury I haven’t seen in a long long time. The scene is terrifying, monumental, liberating, and dazzling. It ends with Djigui no doubt finishing his dance to thunderous applause as a blood-soaked Dounia finds millions of euros and lets it all fall from the open vent in the ceiling onto her bleeding body as she lies in a luxury white marble tub in triumph.


“Imagine Saint Omer’s Alice Diop directing Emily The Criminal,” I told my brother when recommending Divines, “where these characters go from the unexpected, tear-soaked, and heart-racing ending isn’t a puzzle to be solved though the ending itself just can’t help but leave its audiences in deep thought.” The best moments of Divines (And there are a lot of them) all reflect the loneliness that comes with poverty. Even if you have a few beautiful-hearted people by your side, you feel disgusting about yourself while the world above demeans and breaks you. There’s nothing more lonely than that.


Even if we don’t know each other, indeed there’s some kind of system that promotes the narrative that we’re supposed to look out for one another. Sometimes, it’s even easier to help strangers than those you know and yet, often it is the case that the strangers to you are the ones who afflict the most harm. It’s that kind of societal betrayal that breaks a person’s psyche. The betrayal drives them into living a different kind of life, straying from a path that’s not serving them. It’s what turned Aubrey Plaza to crime in Emily The Criminal and Joaquin Phoenix to madness and murder in Joker.


People are not islands. We’re mountains, all of us. The luckiest are the French Alps. The tall, beautiful, and comfortable are bathed in luxurious snows and have healthy organs of gorgeous earth. Those who break become lava-flowing volcanoes that boil over in pain and disgust. There’s nothing like the unspeakable ending of Divines to make clear this point. A final act of absolute evil ensures everything does go out in flames and lets it all burn to the ground.


Is it better to be the flame than the ash?


Probably.


Not if you have to sell your soul.











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