Vividly photographed in shimmering colors and driven by a propulsive score, writer-director Raja Amari's feature debut, about a lonely, proper widow who gets in touch with her inner belly dancer, has been described as a Tunisian variation on the overwrought melodramas of Douglas Sirk.
Since the death of her husband, seamstress Lilia (Hiam Abbass) has devoted herself to her teenaged daughter Salma (Hend El Fahem). When Salma is at school, Lilia cleans house, shops and watches television, wrapped in shapeless housedresses and emotionally cocooned by her joyless daily routine. Lilia worries about Salma, who often stays out late; Salma says she's studying with her friend Hela (Nadra Lamloum), but Lilia once spied Salma in dance class, making eyes at the handsome accompanist, Chokri (Maher Kamoun). When Lilia spots Chokri on the street one afternoon, she follows him to work and learns that he's a percussionist at the Satin Rouge, a cabaret featuring scantily clad belly dancers. Lilia creeps inside, hoping to learn more about the young man she fears Salma is dating, and faints from the heat and excitement. She's revived by headliner Folla (Monia Hichri), a no-nonsense good-time girl with a heart as expansive as her sequined bust. Lilia beats a hasty retreat as soon as she's able, but later encounters Folla at the open-air market and is persuaded to sew some costumes for her. As Salma continues to sneak around with Chokri, convinced that her prim mother would die if she knew her daughter had a boyfriend, Lilia finds liberating camaraderie with the Satin Rouge dancers, who are infinitely warmer and more supportive than Lilia's prissy, judgmental neighbors and relatives. Lilia inevitably finds herself on the stage one night, and soon she's shaking her moneymaker nightly and turning young Chokri's head.
Amari, who studied belly dancing before turning to film, cites Egyptian musicals of the 1940s and '50s as the film's primary influence. But it's hard not to see echoes of Sirk's films (especially 1955's ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS), which vividly conjure the emotional whirlpools swirling beneath the surface of lives constrained by rigid social proprieties. Lilia's transformation from strict mother to sensual siren is superficially preposterous, but Abbas infuses the role with an unimpeachable core of emotional truth. The film ends on an ambiguous note; whether Lilia has surrendered to supreme maternal self-sacrifice or committed an act of breathtakingly devious selfishness is left to the viewer to decide. (In Arabic, with subtitles)
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