As a cry for female emancipation, “Hidden Beauties” fits perfectly into vet Tunisian helmer Nouri Bouzid’s body of work. Undeniably heartfelt and certainly topical given the pressures many women in the Muslim world face to put on a headscarf, the pic is regrettably more praiseworthy for its message than its style, which too often tips into meller territory. Early shots set during the 2011 revolution promise a gritty punch that later feels like a feint, due to strident scenes and relationships only hinting at two-dimensionality. The pic’s Abu Dhabi fest prize, along with Bouzid’s rep, could translate into decent fest play.

The film’s greatest strength lies in how it treats the uncertainties of the revolution. From the powerful opening, showing police beating protesters, to the tension two women feel around ambiguously affiliated young men manning street barricades, the chaos of those days becomes palpable. The uprising remains an undercurrent throughout, retaining a verisimilitude that’s lacking in the story itself, despite the very real issues being raised.

Best friends Aicha (Souhir Ben Amara) and Zenaib (Nour Mziou, weak) work together at a restaurant where Aicha’s the baker and Zenaib a waitress. Following a post-revolution amnesty, Zenaib’s fundamentalist brother, Hamza (Bahram Aloui), comes home from prison and is furious to find his sis living a relatively independent life that includes not wearing a hijab. Their mother (Bouraouia Marzouk) also insists she cover up, and even Zeinab’s Western-influenced fiance, Brahim (Lotfi Abdelli), pushes her to take the veil, saying his mother won’t be happy unless his future wife dons a hijab.

That’s not a problem for Aicha, who wears a headscarf out of conviction rather than family pressure. Still, the stress of the uncertainty in the streets, combined with everyone telling her what to do (including her power-playing boss), ratchets up the tension. Partly thanks to Ben Amara’s resonant performance, Aicha is by far the more intriguing character; perhaps it’s also a blessing that hers is the less developed role.

Brahim is an interesting figure, a hypocritical opportunist perfectly happy with the Ben Ali regime, yet also wily enough to come out on top no matter who’s in power. However, there’s no chemistry between him and Zenaib, nor any hint at why they’re engaged (though from her mother’s viewpoint, he’s a good match). The emotional pitch boils over when Mom locks Zenaib in her bedroom rather than let her go out without a hijab; following hysterics, the family resorts to other methods to make her compliant. Helmer Bouzid (“Making Of”) is condemning not just fundamentalists, but all those who presume to limit individual choice — it’s an admirable message, but it’s unfortunate that Bouzid feels the need to write it so large.

Visuals are a mixed bag, with some scenes, like the handheld shots at the start, impressively lensed; more intimate sequences, however, have a pedestrian smallscreen feel.

Hidden Beauties

Tunisia-United Arab Emirates-France

  • Production: A CTV Prod., Siecle Prods., Studio 37, Nouveau Regard, France 2 Cinema production, with the participation of France Televisions. (International sales: Studio 37, Paris.) Produced by Abdelaziz Ben Mlouka, Georges-Marc Benamou. Directed by Nouri Bouzid. Screenplay, Bouzid, Joumene Limam.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Bechir Mahbouli; editor, Seif Ben Salem; music, Sami Maatougui; production designer, Khaled Joulak; costume designer, Joumene Limam; sound (Dolby Digital), Michel Ben Said, Gerard Rousseau, Sami Ben Mlouka. Reviewed at Abu Dhabi Film Festival (competing), Oct. 18, 2012. Running time: 105 MIN.
  • With: With: Souhir Ben Amara, Nour Mziou, Lotfi Abdelli, Bahram Aloui, Bouraouia Marzouk, Abdelaziz Meherzi, Sabeh Bouzouita, Fathi Mselmeni, Hamdi Hadda, Aymen El Omrani, Mariem Sabbagh, Rania Gabsi, Nouri Bouzid, Zeineb Bouzid, Rim Hmissi, Bilel Slim, Sami Ben Driss, Farah Maaouia, Sana Amri. (Arabic dialogue)
  • Music By: