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Movie Review

A Declaration of Independence, Belly Dancing-Style

From Tunisia, Raja Amari's feminist 'Satin Rouge' comes to life when its heroine discovers the dance, and by extension sisterhood and sexuality.

August 30, 2002|MANOHLA DARGIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Quite possibly the first Tunisian feminist belly-dancing film, "Satin Rouge" isn't your average empowerment trip. Written and directed by 31-year-old Raja Amari, the coming-of-middle-age story centers on a widowed seamstress, Lilia (Hiam Abbass), who through belly dancing finds herself in the company of women whose formidable bellies could slap men silly and usually do.

When the film opens, though, Lilia isn't yet found; she's barely even there. Her life and worries seem to revolve exclusively around her only daughter, Salma (Hend El Fahem), a lush teenage beauty who's understandably reluctant to spend much time in a home that resembles nothing so much as a tomb. Faded and 40-ish, with sloping cheekbones and sad pooling eyes you could drown in, Lilia seems drained of purpose, bereft of friends. There are a couple of snooping neighbors in her life, and an equally intrusive brother-in-law, but most of the time she keeps company with soap opera stars and her dead husband's photograph, re-cleaning the already-scrubbed rooms of her forlorn apartment.

Timed to the rhythm of solitude, "Satin Rouge" takes awhile to get going; for the first half-hour or so, dramatic tension doesn't build, it loiters. Amari isn't in any particular hurry to get her story going and she takes her time conveying the tedium of Lilia's routine, to the point of risking our patience and interest. Lilia sews and dusts, watches and worries, head bowed to the filmmaker's narrative grindstone.

Then, at the very moment you're ready to snap off the TV yourself and boot the character and her director out the front door, something happens: One afternoon while doing her housework, Lilia begins moving to some music on the radio. Pausing in front of a full-length mirror, she sways her hips and drifts into the moment, unaware that the rhythm pulsing through her body is now coming from deep within.

Because she's starting to awaken, Lilia suspects that her daughter's nights may not be entirely innocent, going so far as to track Salma's boyfriend, a flirty smoothie named Chokri (Maher Kamoun), to the cabaret where he works as a drummer. Intrigued, Lilia later returns to the club--she seems to be the only unescorted woman on the desolate Tunis streets--and stumbles into a world of undulating flesh and throbbing music, a world of such intoxication that she instantly falls into a dead faint.

Initially overcome ("the smoke, the men, the atmosphere," she exclaims), once revived, Lilia proves unstoppable. Donning a spangled push-me-up and peekaboo skirt, the widow soon shakes her inhibitions, as well as an ample hourglass figure, and joins a sisterhood whose cheeky transgression would delight Pedro Almodovar.

Amari has the Spanish auteur's love of outsider communities and she shares Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman's sense of female-specific space, although her most prominent touchstone here is Douglas Sirk's 1955 sudster "All That Heaven Allows." As in the Sirk, it's a younger man who ushers the widow back into the world--which in this case adds a wild mother-daughter kink--but in "Satin Rouge" she also gets to make friends, dress like Scheherazade and work her groove thing. That's also to the good of the film, because once Lilia gets moving, the pace picks up considerably.

Belly dancing isn't always the most thrilling of dances, but it's a blast to see these women shaking and rolling because they're so thoroughly in charge of the male clientele and their own sexuality. If nothing else, these big, not necessarily beautiful bellies are a sharp rebuke to a world in which a woman's perfection is measured by how closely she shrinks to zero.

When Lilia first tries on the belly dancer's costume alone in a dressing room, the camera pans away before she undoes her clothes, as if shielding its eyes (and ours) from her nakedness. There's a sense of discretion, even modesty in how the camera looks away, and also a sense of respect. But the camera movement is also useful because it allows us to take in the surrounding clutter--a riot of color and texture, along with a bottle of Johnny Walker--so at odds with the ordered sterility of Lilia's home. The next time she tries on a dancing outfit--this time surrounded by friends, not just their clutter--it's clear that in stepping out of her everyday clothes, Lilia has jumped into the fray for good.

"It'll be fun," promises one of the dancers. "We'll drive them crazy." In "Satin Rouge," that's not just a promise, it's a declaration of fabulous independence.

Unrated. Times guidelines: simulated sex without nudity and some suggestive belly dancing.

"Satin Rouge"

Hiam Abbass...Lilia

Hend El Fahem...Salma

Maher Kamoun...Chokri

Monia Hichri...Folla

Faouzia Badr...The neighbor

Released by Zeitgeist Films. Written and directed by Raja Amari. Produced by ADR Productions (Alain Rozanes and Pascal Verroust), Nomadis Images (Dora Bouchoucha Fourati), Arte France Cinema and L'Agence Nationale de Promotionde l'Audiovisuel-Tunisie (A.N.P.A). Cinematographer Diane Baratier. Set designer Kais Rostom. Editor Pauline Dairou. Costume designer Magdalena Garcia Caniz. Music Nawfel El Manaa. In Arabic with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.

Exclusively at Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 478-6379.

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