Joie de Vivre
Even with an execrable French accent, Satin Rouge sounds better than Red Silk. Whichever, Raja Amari’s first feature-length film, in Arabic with subtitles, is a gem. Afterwards, many in the press audience inquired about Nawfel El Manaa’s original music score – more pulsing finger-drum driven (derbouka) than I remember from much Arab-world travel – and in the elevator two thirty-something-ish ladies were delighted to discover a fellow traveler who offered them classes in belly dancing.
Low-keyed and honest, and despite a bit of choppy editing, the film is a celebration of unintellectualized joy and the discovery of life. Possibly a woman will feel greater kinship, for, although Arab clubs are overwhelmingly male-filled, this is a woman’s world and its menfolk mostly taciturn foils. In a simple way, writer-director Amari and Irene Papas-beautiful Hiam Abbass tell a story of personal liberation and female bonding that is movingly more effective than our homegrown, hyped, feel-good glitz about "sisterhood."
As Lilia, the latter, Haïfa-born actress’ shy, rather quiet looks, and even her changing clothing, convey so effectively what PC jargon, X-rated scenes and heavy-handed preaching could not. Not to give away the disarming story – a lonely seamstress widow, with a modern teen-age daughter, gradually shedding her mourning isolation and inhibitions through clandestine cabaret dancing – one can still praise the ambiguity implied in Lilia’s closing wedding dance and sly smile. The wordless consternation when teacher-drummer/boyfriend-lover-groom Chokri (Maher Kamoun) is introduced to Lilia is so effective that few filmmakers could conceive of, much less carry it out.
Among the numerous virtues here is the obviously conscious decision not to milk the "exotic," that is, not to focus on Tunis, the far-away and superficially "different." The moralistic neighbor, the straight-laced country uncle, the talkative aging cabaret star and friend Folla (a terrific Monia Hichri) -- are these not universals who merely happen to be Tunisians?
Refreshing and appropriate, as well, is the refusal to Westernize accoutrements. In two love scenes, for example, ironically but logically linked on several levels, there are no voyeuristic, Puritan lingering pans of bodies in heat, there is almost no flesh; a face and brief hoarse breathing tell an honest "all" of quick fulfillment and release. Cabarets are sweaty and smoky, raucous cultural gathering places, packed with friends and hardly the vinyl, smarmy pleasure palaces and runways we imagine and build. The girls’ tasseled costumes are not spaghetti tangas that leave nothing to dream, but, rather, gilded and girdled ‘fifties-style bikini-corsets. Patrons are not hip pretty boys, and the brightly lipsticked, spangled belly dancers, fleshly, ample – more Rubens than Britney. Not a washboard ab to be found, no sculptured buns in the house – just people, real people, laughing and enjoying.
Through such subtle touches as ubiquitous mirrors, the positioning of framed photographs, the letting-down or curling of hair, the sensual luxury of an unaccustomed taxicab ride, new high heels or cheap plastic sandals or bare feet, and silly TV soapers, Amari and her cast and crew offer up a recognizable world that is humorous and sad, liberating and cloistered, of one place and yet everywhere.
Indeed, Satin Rouge speaks to men as well as to women, for it affirms what human life is about, or should be. We are life, it says, and what more can we ask for? Wherever our here-and-now may be, the joys of being alive are what we have and what we are.
(Released by Zeitgeist Films; not rated by MPAA.)