Ignore the awful English-language title: “Flesh Out” is an emotionally rich, sensitively made film about a young woman in Mauritania forced to gain weight in order to conform to traditional concepts of well-rounded beauty before her impending marriage. Strikingly registering the sensations of a protagonist living between the dutiful traditions of her class and the less restrictive social patterns of an increasingly globalized society, the film paints a sympathetic portrait of a woman awakening to misogynistic conditioning disguised as cultural convention. Though Italian director Michela Occhipinti’s knowledge of Mauritania was limited before making the movie, her feature debut largely avoids the feel of a Westerner in exotic lands, and she’s careful to show strong women negotiating the tricky shoals where proud tradition and self-expression merge and scatter. Though an exact translation of the Italian title, “the body of the bride,” would be far more marketable, the film deserves international art-house exposure, and not only for its topical feminist message.
An eye-catching opening, featuring a close-up of a woman in a hijab drinking milk from a black bowl, her gaze directed at the camera, is compositionally and thematically intriguing, making the viewer want to know more. Verida (Verida Beitta Ahmed Deiche) is to be married in three months, but before then, she needs to undergo “gavage,” or force-feeding, so she can exhibit the kind of avoirdupois considered attractive in brides. That means her mother will make her eat and drink as much as 10 times a day, even waking her up at night to ensure she packs on the pounds. Periodically, a local man, Sidi (Sidi Mohamed Chighaly), arrives with his scale to weigh her and report on her progress, but she’s not gaining as much as her mother wants.
At home, Verida is self-contained and obedient, so it’s a nice contrast to see her more relaxed with two female friends, including Amal (Amal Saab Bouh Oumar), a contemporary with a taste for French pop culture magazines and literature (she’s reading “Bonjour tristesse”) who advises her that if she doesn’t like her new husband, she can easily divorce him after a few months. While Verida is the dutiful daughter, accepting traditions handed down within the family, Amal, who yet wears a hijab, is the more free-spirited friend who plans on studying abroad. There’s a telling scene in which they go to a beauty supply shop and Amal tells Verida she’ll stop using skin-lightening cremes if Verida stops the gavage; though independent-minded, even Amal is subject to the pressures of what culturally constitutes beauty, including racist ideas of skin tone.
As the weeks of forced feeding continue, Verida becomes tired and moody, increasingly exasperated with the endless meals and bowls of milk. Unbalanced by the forced feeding and uncertain about her upcoming marriage, she agrees to go on a date of sorts with Sidi, though both know there’s no future possible for them. Even so, his interest in who she is now, rather than as a fattened commodity, makes her feel good about herself.
To avoid a sense that the relationship between mother and daughter is entirely antagonistic, Occhipinti includes a nice moment when Verida asks her mother what she was like at her age. It’s a welcome change, yet the director misses the opportunity to develop the strand — the conversation is too short. The script also could have been improved with a bit more understanding afforded the mother and grandmother, the latter of which runs a beauty salon. It seems that Occhipinti isn’t quite sure how to end the film either, resorting to a poetic ambiguity that looks nice but does nothing to further our understanding of character.
Although not a professional actor, Deiche has a natural ease on screen, perhaps because she’s playing a role partly taken from her own life story. She’s unfazed by the proximity of Daria D’Antonio’s inquisitive camera, with its pleasure-giving interest in objects, texture and color contrasts like white milk in black bowls. “Flesh Out” is a beautiful film to watch, its mise-en-scene carefully constructed: For example, Verida’s father, a peripatetic figure in the home, is generally relegated to the margins of the frame, or his face is partly turned away to make him an even more peripheral character. It’s hard to know quite why Occhipinti uses the song “Ring of Fire” twice — either she wants to make sure no one thinks she’s anything other than a (perceptive) Westerner making a movie in Africa, or she falls into that indie film trap where American songs are incongruously used to lend a comfortable vibe to the hip art-house crowd. Either way, its foreignness feels out of synch with the picture.