A co-ed raped by cops is further traumatized by a society more prone to disdain and brutality than empathy in Kaouther Ben Hania’s “Beauty and the Dogs,” a film that boasts impressively fluid long takes yet comes up short in the script department. Taking such a powerful theme and then piling on every expected twist makes it feel like the director’s understandable outrage over similar, factual cases blurred her understanding of modulation — a surprise given the conceptual sophistication of her excellent mockumentary debut “Challat of Tunis.”
The callousness of (un)civil society, together with police repulsiveness, is a subject needing to be constantly re-examined, yet Ben Hania’s almost chilly mise-en-scène lessens the emotional impact of the protagonist’s truly nightmarish plight. Although multiple film funds and a high percentage of European backers are involved, no doubt lured by worthy issues and the director’s previous successes, sales aren’t likely to meet expectations.
The film’s visual codes work best at the start, as Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani) borrows a slinky electric dress after her own — black, with a prim Peter Pan collar — gets torn. The new outfit isn’t her style, but she’s the co-organizer of a college party at a Tunis disco, and she’s enjoying getting into the swing of things. A flirtation develops with Youssef (Ghanem Zrelli), and just as they head outside for a walk, the film cuts and Mariam is seen distraught and running down the street with Youssef at her heels. At first the viewer thinks he’s chasing her and she wants to get away, but no, it’s a flight of mindless desperation, as she’s just been raped by some cops in a car.
Youssef takes her to a nearby private clinic where the female attendant treats her with contempt, silently making conclusions from her revealing dress while refusing to let her see a doctor without identification. Next they try the emergency room of a public hospital, but there she’s told rape isn’t an emergency, and the doctors refuse to do an examination until she reports to the police.
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Forced to go from one station to the other, the target of leering eyes and intimidation, Mariam looks for sympathy from female desk sergeant Faiza (Anissa Daoud of “Borders of Heaven”), while the male cops bully Youssef for being a hot-headed activist. Faiza’s protection is offered begrudgingly and doesn’t last: Mariam and Youssef are separated, and the fragile, very scared young woman endures further humiliation throughout the night as the cops try every form of coercion, even appealing to her patriotism, to get her to drop the charges.
No one will argue that Mariam’s ordeal is anything less than horrific, and audience sympathy remains strongly connected to her character, yet stating this doesn’t mean the film packs the necessary punch. Nor is it enough to say such a film is needed in the Middle East, as if this type of behavior doesn’t exist elsewhere. Yes, the story and characters are unambiguously Tunisian, and it helps to be aware of such things as the tension between traditional and conservative segments of society, along with the inhumane, deeply misogynistic mentality of authority figures incapable of making the transition from dictatorship to a post-Revolution nation. Yet to somehow cut “Beauty” slack because of where it comes from does an injustice to both the region and Ben Hania herself, whose talents have been proven elsewhere. It also doesn’t help that the ghost of “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” that inevitably hangs over any film taking a razorblade to institutional cold-heartedness.
Star Al Ferjani has a 1,000-watt smile at the start, and her initial easy physicality makes an effective contrast with her later intense, bruised self-consciousness, but the moment when she transitions from damaged naivety to an active agent in her salvation comes a little too suddenly and a little too late in the game. Ben Hania’s decision to divide the film into 9 chapters, each seemingly orchestrated in a single take, works on a cerebral level, but the form doesn’t serve the story, and while the overall choreography of actors and camerawork is impressive, it never fully satisfies.