'Flesh Out': Film Review | Berlin 2019

Flesh Out-Publicity Still-H 2019
Courtesy of Berlinale
Not for the lactose intolerant.

Italian director Michela Occhipinti flips the usual view of women's body shapes being dictated by unrealistic cultural standards in this drama about the Mauritanian tradition known as gavage.

The protagonist's grandmother in Flesh Out tells the unhappy bride-to-be that she has it easy compared with the old days, when Mauritanian women were plumped up for marriage during a single night in a tent in the desert; they would ingest an entire roast goat and drink 16 liters of milk, and were forced to keep on swallowing anything they threw up. The old woman's sister died during such a ritual. In order to achieve the full-figured voluptuousness considered desirable by men, Verida has the relative luxury of three months to gain 20 kilos, eating 10 meals a day of couscous with fatty camel meat and milk until her wedding to a man chosen by her parents.

Italian documentary maker Michela Occhipinti's modest but engrossing first narrative feature is structurally a little, well, thin. But this understated depiction of the feminist rebellion growing inside a dutiful daughter subjected to the physically extreme weight-gain process known as gavage benefits from being one of relatively few dramas to train an intimate gaze on the lives of Arab Maghreb women.

Verida (Verida Beitta Ahmed Deiche) is an ordinary young woman who enjoys hanging out with her girlfriends, reading teen magazines, kidding around with her little sister and helping at the beauty parlor owned by her grandmother, which she will one day inherit. But her freedom is abruptly curtailed when her marriage plans are announced and her mother starts her on a regimen of being woken up at all hours for meal after meal. Her chief comfort is the flirtatious glances of Sidi (Sidi Mohamed Chighaly), a handsome local who brings around a set of scales for her weekly weigh-in.

Occhipinti and co-writer Simona Coppini subtly make the point that the absurdity to Westerners of women being expected to stack on the pounds to meet rigid standards of beauty and social status is probably no more bizarre than the idea of girls starving themselves for fashion is to other cultures. Verida's sister gets upset because someone at school calls her as thin as spaghetti, begging to be started on gavage in her preteen years.

Even with her outspoken best friend Amal (Amal Saab Bouh Oumar), who bailed on her marriage after just five months and jokes, "Only ugly girls keep the same husband their whole lives," Verida shows few signs of resistance to being treated like a goose on the foie gras chain. Having her entire future decided for her, from her husband to her body shape, has always seemed such a foregone conclusion that she barely questions it at first, though it's clear she's not immune to the idea of a genuine romance with Sidi. A heart-shaped talking night light in her bedroom that speaks the English words "I love you" indicates this dream a tad bluntly; a captivating scene in which she rides in Sidi's car while he sings along to June Carter Cash's "Ring of Fire" makes the point by more suggestive means.

For much of the action you wonder if Verida will ever speak up for herself. Instead, she remains a virtual prisoner in her home, peeking from behind curtains at her future husband during a family visit from which she's excluded, and getting a more expansive view of the world outside only in her frequent contemplative moments on the rooftop. But the physical toll of forced overeating wears her down, sparking small acts of defiance and friction with her mother, while also causing her to seek easier alternatives, like weight-gain pills with possible harmful side effects.

The script is undernourished, but wisely refrains from giving Verida an artificial epiphany or a big empowerment speech in which she outright rejects a tradition already being abandoned by some of her more modern girlfriends. Occhipinti instead concludes with an open-ended visual statement that hints at Verida at least psychologically reclaiming ownership of her body and her life. At one point, she expresses her gratitude to Sidi for looking at her and actually seeing her, but the character's arc is as much about her learning to see herself.

Lead actor Deiche, drawing on her own experience, conveys the internal conflict slowly building in Verida, communicating mostly with her expressive eyes. The use of nonprofessional actors adds to the film's no-frills, quasi-documentary style, with Alex Braga's original music employed effectively to shape the mood.                                                              

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Production companies: Vivo Film, Rai Cinema, in association with Films Boutique, KMBO
Cast: Verida Beitta Ahmed Deiche, Amal Saab Bouh Oumar, Aichetou Abdallahi Najim, Sidi Mohamed Chighaly
Director: Michela Occhipinti
Screenwriters: Michela Occhipinti, Simona Coppini
Producers: Marta Donzelli, Gregorio Paonessa
Executive producers: Alex Braga, Alessio Lazzareschi
Director of photography: Daria D’Antonio
Music: Alex Braga
Editor: Cristiano Travaglioli
Sales: Films Boutique

94 minutes