Layla M. is a hard-hitting, incisive drama about a Dutch teenager’s growing relationship with religious extremism.
Our protagonist, Layla, born and raised in Amsterdam, begins the film still attending school and living with her parents. On a seemingly day-to-day basis, Layla witnesses, and is victim to, a fairly systematic infringement of religious rights and freedoms. The recent Burka ban prompts her (along with her friends) to post an inflammatory picture online of herself, a move which provokes anger and admonishment from her wary, pragmatic father.
“powerful and eloquent”
As she becomes increasingly involved in acts of protest by local Muslims, Layla finds herself alienated from her family and targeted by the local police forces. Eventually, she marries Abdul, one of the most prominent local agitators, and they abscond to the Middle East, where she sees her husband drawn deeper and deeper into the web of extremism.
Layla M never euphemises, and is astutely even-handed with its subject matter. It recognises the factors that initially push Islamic youths towards the extremist factions – discrimination, over-aggressive police tactics, the veneer of religious purity – while also refusing to excuse or ignore the very real darkness of life as part of an extremist group. There is something of a tragic inevitability to the end of the film, as Layla comes to realise her mistake, and although a very similar closing scene may have hit much harder in Four Lions, the film nonetheless ties everything up with a cynical, devastating realism.
The acting is good, without ever requiring greatness; Nora El Koussour is believable and affecting in the lead role, and the minor characters all convince completely. As a work of social commentary, Layla M. is powerful and eloquent. As a work of cinema, however, it may be too pointed for many viewers, too gruelling a watch to ever truly win our affections.
Image: Mijke de Jong