It’s often a cop-out to categorize any film that emulates scary, realistic situations as “horror,” but Kaouther Ben Hania’s Tunisia-set Beauty and the Dogs plays like an actual, unending nightmare. The traumatic incident that sets off the film is a rape — that of college student Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani) — but it takes place offscreen, and the horror that we witness is Mariam trying to report it. You see, the perpetrators are cops, which means they’re in the business of cover-ups; in several heart-palpitating scenes, they chase her down dark corridors, threatening her to drop charges.
For Mariam, the night is a series of dead ends: The emergency room refuses to admit her because she doesn’t have identification (they’re unsympathetic to the fact that she lost her purse in the rapists’ car), and the gynecologist says she’s not qualified to examine her. The policemen, of course, blame her with familiar rape-apology rhetoric: “You’re complaining about being raped in this skimpy dress?” (For context: Tunisia only just abolished a law last year that gave rapists impunity.)
Director Ben Hania has a rhythmic, urgent sense of filmmaking, but she makes the odd creative decision of dividing her film into nine chapters, each a single take. The choreography is impressive, but announcing the shots with numbered title cards is distracting and undermines both the tension and the graveness of the situation. They at least provide brief relief from an uncomfortable watch. Tragically, it’s not much of a shock when the credits tell us “based on a true story.”
Beauty and the Dogs
Directed by Kaouther Ben Hania
Opens March 23, Landmark 57
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