‘Joy’ Review: In Austria, a Nigerian Woman Finds a Life Without Hope

Although Netflix has a reputation as an escapist clearinghouse, the streaming service isn’t averse to the occasional tough sit. The Austrian film “Joy” — the title refers both to the main character’s name and the precise opposite of the film’s mood — follows a Nigerian woman (Joy Anwulika Alphonsus) who is trafficked illegally to Austria, where she works as a prostitute and sends money home.

The film opens with a girl participating in a ceremony with a Juju priest who, we later learn, is essentially ensnaring her — making her think that disobedience in Europe will bring bad luck. In the first of several intelligently uninflected leaps in time or geography, the director, Sudabeh Mortezai, jumps from this scene in Nigeria to a title card and then to Austria. By now, Joy, who has undergone such a ritual, is an experienced streetwalker overseeing a newcomer, Precious (Precious Mariam Sanusi).

The cycle is difficult to break: Joy and Precious’s madam (Angela Ekeleme Pius), who collects their debts over a period of years, pits her stable of women against one another (if Joy loses Precious while watching her, Joy assumes Precious’s financial obligations). And because testifying carries no guarantee of a visa, Joy has little incentive to blow the whistle in court.

In such dire circumstances — Joy and Precious are each sexually assaulted during the film — is there room for kindness? Mortezai, who is said to have based her film on extensive research into and collaboration with women who knew this world, poses that question but, to her credit, doesn’t settle on an answer. The sisterhood among the madam’s prostitutes easily devolves into betrayal or indifference. Matching content with form, the movie is tight and merciless, even if parts play like a tract.


Rated TV-MA. In English and German, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes.


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