Cannes 2021 review: Bonne mère (Hafsia Herzi)

Nora is a hard worker with a limited income. Her days start at five in the morning before she takes on her other quotidian chores as a cleaning lady and personal help. Like firm cement, Nora holds her multigenerational family together in a plain apartment in Marseille. But it is when she goes to visit her son in prison that we finally understand the concerned look in her eyes. To outlive the faulty decisions made by her children, Nora quietly finds practical and even superstitious ways to overcome her pain.

Family members, neighbours, and coworkers represent Nora’s strong support system. These characters make for a gentle presence that results in a sober drama with high but not overbearing stakes. Nora’s grace transforms this familiar story into something special resembling an homage by director Hafsia Herzi to her upbringing. The unconditional love of a mother, as seen through Herzi’s dedicated eyes, is fully demonstrated in a series of pure acts of generosity. These moments make Bonne mère transcend the standard migrant family setting into something more singular.

Portrayed brilliantly by Halima Benhamed, a revelation in her first role, Nora rarely speaks her pain, and when she does she is never overblown. Nora’s heavy baggage can be found in her tender face, and her eyes, full of thoughts, articulate it in powerful ways. The 55-year-old newcomer understands the resilience of her character that comes with a still power. Her solid effort is best represented when seeking hope while living in the center of discouraging times. To say that Halima Benhamed is a rare find in this film would be an understatement.

Hafsia Herzi presents a strong case for herself as a great actors’ director. Despite the relatively short runtime of Bonne mère, her ensemble cast (mainly composed of non-professional actors) succeeds in creating a real onscreen family. Her kind eye to their struggles comes with a strong element of visual flair and a complete emotional understanding. She is commanding when capturing family moments, tensions, and loud discussions.

We all love you. Much respect, Nora!” With these words, we start parting ways with Nora in the film. And while Bonne mère looks like safe territory to delve into, it is a pleasant trip. A slice of real life that entertains and catches our concentration for its entire runtime. But Bonne mère stands tall with its incredible ensemble and turns 99 minutes in the scattered lives of frustrated souls into an engaging time at the movies. The downs are heartfelt without overreaching. The ups, however, are soaring.