Leila Nozha Khouadra
Amina Amel Ledhili
Moha Naji Najeh
Naima Samia Mzali
Mounia Lara Chaouachi
Hassan Slim Larnaout
Idriss Jamel Sassi
Swiss director Nadia Fares’ first feature examines the deeply ingrained masculinist tenets of contemporary North African culture via parallel portraits of three Tunisian women whose lives intersect. Following a long line of films on the oppression of the veil, “Honey and Ashes” focuses instead on a modern, ostensibly more emancipated society, making it an obvious choice for programmers of women’s fests. But a hint of didactic feminism and some structural shortcomings will prevent the kind of arthouse exposure given 1994’s more accomplished “Les Silences du Palais.”
Youngest of the women is twentysomething Leila (Nozha Khouadra), whose love for Hassan (Slim Larnaout) must be kept hidden from her strict father. Perceived as being promiscuous by three men who see her kissing Hassan on the beach, Leila flees a potential rape situation and is picked up by passing motorist Naima (Samia Mzali).
A successful doctor in her mid-40s, Naima studied medicine in Moscow, where her hopes of settling with the Russian student she loved were crushed by pressure from her family to enter into an arranged marriage. At the hospital where Naima now works, she treats Amina (Amel Ledhili) for injuries sustained in what was reported as a fall. Recognizing that the woman has taken a beating from her husband, Moha (Naji Najeh), Naima encourages her to rebel.
The stories illustrate the way in which even the most seemingly liberal of men can maintain constricting moral beliefs about women and their given roles, and how love offers no concrete protection from this. Hassan’s feelings for Leila are outweighed by his parents’ insistence that he marry his cousin; Amina’s stability with her former philosophy professor Moha is eroded by violence; having seen her own life compromised, Naima strives to instill assertiveness and self-respect in her daughter.
Fares’ script is intelligent and dramatically involving, but the film’s feminist message feels a little forced. More skillful intercutting between the three stories might have lent greater fluidity and lessened the melodramatic feel of some sections, particularly Leila’s outcome as a student driven to prostitution to pay her way through university. Overall, however, Fares’ sensitive direction and the cast’s persuasive performances make this a passionate statement about the condition of women in the Arab world.