Raja Amari studied belly dancing in her native Tunis and filmmaking in Paris, and in her first feature she has brought those two interests together to make a movie that delights with its subject matter even as it disappoints with its technique. Tunisia is a Muslim country tucked up in a corner of North Africa as close to Sicily as you can get without paying protection, and some of that easygoing Italian warmth seems to have wafted across the narrow arm of the Mediterranean that separates the two continents. Tunisian women wear modern clothes, and go to school, and get around town by themselves with only the benevolent protective supervision you?d expect in a Western city (?Gerald, walk Aunt Mary down to the corner and put her in a cab.?)
Amari?s story centers on Lilia (Hiam Abbass), a repressed but beautiful widow who lives in an apartment with her teenage daughter Salma (Hend El Fahem) and a photograph of her late husband. She spends more time in conversation with the latter, as Salma is a sweet but headstrong young lady who stays away from home as much as she possibly can. Most of Lilia?s day is passed in watching television soap operas and cleaning the apartment, but there is a vague, unconscious sensuality in the way she bends over to wipe a molding or straighten an antimacassar, and Amari?s camera lingers knowingly on the ripe curve of her hip. Occasionally she even pauses in front of a mirror to let herself go in a little dance while she dusts.
When she discovers Salma is taking belly dancing lessons, a concerned Lilia trails the class?s drummer (Maher Kammoun) to a cabaret, where she enters timidly, watches some belly dancing, and faints dead away. She is revived by one of the dancers, the voluptuous and motherly Folla (Monia Hichri), who takes her under her wing. ?How do I get out of here?? Lilia gasps. ?I?ll take you home when my number?s over,? Folla soothingly assures her.
The two women become fast friends. Lilia sews, and is soon recruited to do some costume work by the dancer. Alone in Folla?s dressing room one night while her friend is performing, Lilia tries on a costume and a few moves, and of course gets so caught up in it that she?s surprised in flagrante delicto when the dancer returns. Next thing you know she?s being hustled out onstage, and it must be something that Tunisian women have in their blood, because she does a creditable job, and is hired by the crusty old boss. In a nice turnaround, Lilia now starts sneaking out at night to do what she was earlier afraid her daughter was sneaking out at night to do. Her daughter is in fact sneaking out to do something far more traditional and universal, a pastime that Lilia eventually embraces as well, but that relates to a subplot you?ll want to discover for yourself.
The considerable appeal of ?Satin Rouge? rests on several strengths. It depicts the sexual and emotional reawakening of a Muslim woman in a manner that will come as a surprise to Western audiences steeped in images of chador-clad Arab shadows peering furtively through slits and vanishing around corners. It fills the eye with the sinuous sensuality of belly dancing, performed enticingly by women of a certain age and shape, and it enchants the ear with the accompanying music. And it offers us the lovely Hiam Abbass in the central role. Abbass unclenches like a flower on a cool spring morning, one petal at a time, and it is to her great credit that she manages to overcome Amari?s unpracticed direction and awkward storytelling to create a character who seduces and compels our attention. Amari comes up with some nice twists and revelations, but her storytelling is more serviceable than bravura, and stripped of its exotic locale and dancing, much of the plotline would be tiredly familiar. The belly dancing sequences are not richly enough shot and edited to create the intoxicating sensuality they deserve, but the dancing itself is beautiful to see.
It also engenders a wonderful cultural alchemy. The erotic dancing in Western clubs is decried as sexist and demeaning to women; here, when women dress scantily and gyrate fragrant feminine flesh to bewitch a mostly male and money-tossing clientele, it is empowering. Why ? Who can say. It may be nothing more than that political correctness does not travel well.
© Text 2002 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be