Great belly dancers are often women of a certain age, far removed from nymphlike ideals of beauty. Their proud displays of ample hips and bosoms, and their fierce seductiveness, have little in common with shy, retiring females—they’re more like vibrant, battle-scarred warriors. Their ancient art is the focus of Satin Rouge (Zeitgeist, opens August 23), a first feature by Tunisian writer and director Raja Amari. Seamstress Lilia (Hiyam Abbas), a widow, spends the days housekeeping, occasionally breaking into dance before a photograph of her dead husband; in the evenings, she watches television and waits for her teenage daughter, Salma (Hend El Fahem).
Salma is having an affair with Chokri (Maher Kamoun), a musician. One night, the worried Lilia follows him to his workplace, a seedy cabaret in downtown Tunis. There, amid the cigarette smoke, the clapping men, and writhing abdomens clad in sequins, she faints and comes to in the arms of Folla (Monia Hichri), a dancer who befriends her. Soon the cabaret becomes her second life.
Amari studied screenwriting in Paris, and her film is noteworthy for its rich characterizations and startling plot twists, including a delightful surprise ending that is both a sexual double entendre and a matriarchal triumph. Her directing style and camerawork tend disappointingly toward straightforward melodrama, but the film is enlivened by fine performances, especially the lovely Abbas as Lilia. The small roles of Lilia’s neighbors and distant family members subtly suggest the tight web that closes in on women who defy convention in Islamic society. But Satin Rouge also offers artistic evidence that their condition cannot be reduced to clichés of repression and servitude. Their vitality will often find a way out.