A fictional illustration of the position of women in today’s Tunisia, “Fatma” captures the wide range of attitudes towards female sexuality in one of the most liberal Arab societies. Although director Khaled Ghorbal is eager to denounce the traditional view that would keep women in the home and virgins till marriage, what may surprise Western viewers is the modernity of sexual mores among young people and educated urbanites. Film is quite interesting on a sociological level, but has trouble going deeper into its young heroine’s mind and especially in creating a compelling storyline. A much tighter editing job is needed if this MK2 release is to find auds beyond the Arab film regulars.
Raped by her cousin at 17, country girl Fatma (Awatef Jendoubi) tells no one, keeping her pain inside. She binds her breasts in a sign of how she begins rejecting her sexuality. Only when she goes to college in Tunis and begins dating a student does she remove the binding and willingly make love. Inexplicably, she breaks off the relationship and gives up university to become an elementary school teacher in a tiny village. There she meets Aziz (Bagdadi Aoum), a young doctor with whom she falls in love and eventually marries.
The awkwardly told story meanders through incident after incident in Fatma’s life, shifting focus as it goes. At first pic seems to be about the after-effects of rape, as the girl struggles to free herself from a fear of men. A long stretch tells of her search to leave behind her role as an unpaid servant in her father’s house and achieve independence. This she does, in a nice touch, thanks to the help of her father’s second wife, who goes into debt to send her to university. Finally, film switches track again when Fatma pays a gynecologist to stitch her hymen so it will break again on her wedding night and Aziz will believe she’s a virgin. This turns into a major crisis of conscience for Fatma, because her instincts rebel against the hypocrisy of this traditional and apparently common practice.
Jendoubi grows increasingly confident in the title role from scene to scene, helping to center the unstructured script with her strong screen presence. Secondary characters are mostly stick figures meant to illustrate a point. Her best friend Samira (Nabila Guider), a bold, fun-loving lass without sexual hang-ups, is married and quickly divorced, ending up a house-bound slave to her religious brother. Their friend Radhia (Amel Safta), a university lecturer, chooses the unhappy freedom of being the mistress of a married man.
Ghorbal expresses the anguishing contradictions under which Tunisian women live, torn between traditional dictates and modern ideas of feminism and freedom. Several scenes present fascinating views of female bonding and the enviably casual, non-sexual physical intimacy shared by Arab women.
Pic is slowed down throughout by mucho dead screen time, which could be profitably eliminated. Foued Ghorbal’s listenable score of Tunisian music makes characters dance throughout the film.