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'Satin Rouge'

Tunisian film 'Satin Rouge' blushes with delicious ironies

Saturday, November 02, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

In the lovely opening scene of "Satin Rouge," now at the Squirrel Hill Theater, a radio is blaring as Lilia goes about the prosaic task of dusting -- slowly and carefully -- with a brief stop before the mirror. For a moment or two, she allows herself to undulate a bit -- just the hint of a dance -- in her housewife's frock.

"Satin Rouge"

RATING: R in nature for adult sexual themes

STARRING: Hiam Abbass, Maher Kamoun, Hend El Fahem

DIRECTOR: Raja Amari


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Soon enough, she'll be doing so in "Satin Rouge" at the local cabaret.

If you've never seen a Tunisian film, this is your chance -- and a good one. It's the tale of a shy, repressed, single mother (Hiam Abbass), who keeps too close an eye on the virtue of her daughter (Hend El Fahem). The latter has taken up with a drummer in a nightclub that features Tunis' best belly-dancers -- long-in-the-tooth, if not the belly. Lilia stumbles inside, looking for her daughter, but finds a secret, liberating new outlet instead.

"Satin Rouge" is a combination dance film and character study of two beautiful women in love. The younger is constantly embarrassed by the elder's smothering attentions, but their struggle is a uniquely gentle one (by American standards). In constructing their story, director Raja Amari gives us slices of life as juicy as the slices of oranges everyone always seems to be cutting up.

It is a traditional but rather liberal -- decidedly non-Taliban -- Islamic society, in which disapproval lurks around every corner for females.

Abbass, an Irene Pappas lookalike, is fully believable as both caterpillar and butterfly in her evolution in the main role. She has the amazing ability to shed 15 frumpy years by simply unpinning her hair, and both acts and dances with delicate subtlety. Fahem is sweetly credible in every scene, and Belafonte-esque Maher Kamoun as the caddish (but not too) musician is equally fine.

An international generalization is that, no matter where or what the culture, you've always gotta watch out for the drummer.

Under the marvelous tutelage of la belle belly veteran Monia Hichri, Lilia dances not so much for the customers as for herself. The lovely role-reversed irony is that she ends up sneaking around from her daughter, instead of the other way around.

The dancing itself goes on too long -- artistically nice but erotically an acquired taste. What's sexier, somehow, than the physical is Lilia's psychological voyage from reticence to ecstasy.

To hell with the Casbah -- take me to Tunisia!

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