“Habiba M’sika or the Dance of Fire,” a biopic about an idolized singer of the 1920s who still is famous today in her native Tunisia, hits the mark with an entrancing subject, but then strains to do the great Habiba justice. Still, despite a limping script with no rhythm, pic remains watchable to the end. It’s mainly a fest item that will have special appeal for fans of Mideast exotica.
Directing her first feature, Tunisian helmer Selma Baccar introduces Habiba when she already was a celebrity. Like other lionized chanteuses in the Arab world of that time, Habiba M’sika was Jewish — along with her rich lover Mimoumi (Hedi Daoud) and others in her group. Baccar makes surprisingly little of the fact, but it nonetheless gives the Tunisian-Algerian-French co-prod a rich ethnic texture.
Auds for her popular songs and sexy delivery are polite gentlemen in red fezes. After each show she holds court at home for an inner circle of male admirers, among them the young poet Chedly (Hejib Belhadhi). She leaves him and Mimoumi to tour Europe and make recordings. A meeting in Berlin with the great Iraqi singer Baghdadi sets off a search for her own roots in Oriental music; in Paris, she is deeply impressed by Sarah Bernhardt. The result, when she finally goes home, is a much more complicated artist who no longer communicates with her fans.
Skipping around the story without a sense of focus, Baccar’s screenplay is pic’s weak link. The film relies heavily on the inherent fascination of M’sika, limned by Souad Amidou competently but without the fireworks the role begs for. Feodor Atkine makes a convincing French dandy who follows Habiba back to Tunis and takes part in a scandalous threesome (or so pic hints) with the wimpily romantic Chedly.
Lensing is on the garish side, but tech work is up to co-prod standards.