The movie was directed by newcomer Raja Amari and centers around the life of a woman, Lilia, in Tunisia (Northern Africa) during a mid-life crisis in her late 30's. She has little life of her own as a widow with a teenage daughter that is about to cut the strings and leave home. Since the death of her husband, she has become a veritable recluse with few ties outside her (and her husband's) family. She sits in front of the small television she has and looks wistfully at the life and times of the people on screen that lead interesting lives full of romance and intrigue. One day, she decides to follow her daughter and make sure the young woman is not disgracing the family. By accident more than anything, she stumbles onto a local cabaret where scantily clad women are bellydancing for men who are cheering and clapping. Eventually, she gets caught up in the whole thing and becomes a popular dancer herself, and starts living life once more.
I liked that the movie spent some time looking at Lilia before she embarked on her career. After all, what do I know about life in Tunisia in contemporary or even ancient times? The woman's plain life in a drab apt with limited surroundings make her transformation all the more interesting and I'm sure that a more experienced director, one with dollar signs in his eyes, would've cut that part short (ostensibly to improve the flow of the movie). As Lilia grows, she casts aside the rigid, virtuous life her society tells her is all she should expect out of life. So the central theme of the movie is one of independence.
The movie was no white wash on the cabaret or the expectations of the dancers either. The manager makes it quite clear what is expected of her when a wealthy customer wants a private show at his home. This is part and parcel of the duties Lilia's taken on and must be borne in stoic fashion. The director had the foresight to include this seedy aspect of the club, showing that a dancer's life is not all wine and song. Independence has a price, we're told, and it's not always evident.
Complimenting the fine acting job by lead Hiyam Abbas, is a cast of various others who are relegated to relatively minor roles but they all contribute to the movie. From the family uncle to the daughter Salma to her new dancing pal and co-worker, Folla, each makes the setting believable. Without those roles, the movie would've come off as a cheap exploitation movie and the director wisely reemphasized the cultural expectations without going overboard. Good move!
Lastly, I thought the idea of showing women in their 30's and 40's dancing to crowds of appreciative men revealed a mindset that is very much out of place with more mainstream projects. As a rule, Hollywood dismisses women as old hags when they hit the big 30. After that, very few roles become available for women to display their physical beauty/prowess. The dancers here all had a few extra pounds (good curves though) and years but at no time did they seem out of control of their lives. This is in stark contrast to the life they are "supposed" to lead and the director's interview discusses the double lives people lead in Tunisia in order to reconcile this aspect of the movie.
Picture: The movie was presented in 1.85:1 ratio Anamorphic Widescreen color. While the picture was not the clearest I've seen, it was well made for a low budget release. The fleshtones were reasonably accurate except during some of the night scenes and the grain only distracted when the movie slowed down in a few spots. The blacks weren't "true black" and there was some minor color bleeding at times but not much.
Sound: The sound was presented in Dolby Digital Stereo with an Arabic language track and optional English subtitles. I would've preferred the subtitles to be placed below the picture in the black bar at the bottom of the screen but they usually weren't intrusive. The vocals were very clear and the music typically compelling, if exotic.
Extras: A trailer, a written interview with the Director, a paper insert that describes belly dancing's origins, and optional English subtitles are all you get.
Final Thoughts: As her first feature length film, I think Director Amari is to be commended. She threw in little touches (like the use of mirrors in a few scenes) that showed she planned the composition as well as some of the dialogue having an underlying subtext that could've been missed is not carefully paid attention to. As a movie about a woman taking charge of her life, it had Universal appeal beyond the bellydancing angle too. As such, I'm going to Highly Recommend this one although those who hate subtitles or are looking for a cheap thrill watching bellydancing might not find it as appealing.