Hidden Beauties: COLCOA Review

Didacticism overwhelms storytelling in this Tunisian feature.

The Arab Spring democracy movement takes a backseat to domestic drama in Nouri Bouzid’s seventh film.

Accomplished filmmaker Nouri Bouzid latches onto the political turmoil following the Tunisian revolution and attempts to transfer some of the momentum for reform to the cause of improving women’s rights. Both emotionally strident and narratively obscure, the film will find most of its adherents on the international festival circuit and perhaps on ancillary in receptive markets.

Lifelong friends Zainab (Nour Mziou) and Aisha (Souhir Ben Amara) work at the same restaurant, but the young women come from completely different home situations. The product of a conservative upbringing, Aisha acts as a parent to her younger siblings in the absence of her mother while trying to earn enough money to help her father get by. Zainab’s family appears more secular, allowing her to attend university, arrange her engagement to a rich young guy with a mysterious background and to go out in public without wearing a hijab, the traditional Islamic headcovering.

Although both friends were briefly caught up in the 2011 Tunisian revolutionary uprisings, it was Zainab’s ardently Islamist brother (Bahram Aloui) who got arrested for leading protests, resulting in a prison sentence. Released from jail, he returns home bristling with indignant fundamentalist fervor, insisting that Zainab quit school, leave her job and don the hijab. At the same time, her fiance (Lofti Abdelli) also tries to persuade her to wear a headscarf to pacify his conservative family. Her quisling mother acquiesces, locking Zainab in her room and plying her with opium tea to pacify her rebellious streak. Meantime, Aisha spends much of her time at work resisting her sleazy boss' attempts at sexual harassment, as well as his insistence that she remove her hijab to improve her earning potential in the restaurant.

Centering his narrative on questions of contemporary and traditionalist interpretations of Islamic society -- as represented by the significance of the hijab -- Bouzid proceeds to repeatedly bludgeon his characters and audience with his simplistic, preachy perspective on women’s rights to political autonomy and individual self-determination. Performances and directorial style are almost as schematic as the script, eliciting neither strong impressions nor effective storytelling. After squandering the opportunity for trenchant commentary on the still-evolving Tunisian revolution, Bouzid is left with little more than hand-wringing domestic drama.

Venue: City of Lights, City of Angeles (COLCOA)

Cast: Nour Mziou, Souhir Ben Amara, Bahram Aloui, Lofti Abdelli

Director: Nouri Bouzid

Screenwriters: Nouri Bouzid, Joumene Limam

Producers: Abdul Aziz Ben Mlouka, George Marc Ben Hammou

Director of photography: Bechir Mahbouli

Production designer: Khaled Joulak

Editor: Seif Ben Salem

Sales: Other Angle Pictures

No rating, 105 minutes

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