There was a revolution in Tunisia, but it only toppled a regime, leaving oppressive ideologies and prejudices intact. In fact, secular Tunisians have grown alarmed at the growing influence of Islamists following the Jasmine Revolution. The notorious case of the woman known as “Meriem” is a horrifying case in point. For her first narrative feature, Kaouther Ben Hania fictionalizes some of the details of the compounded crime, but she remains tragically true to real life throughout Beauty and the Dogs (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.
Mariam Chaouch is pretty and social, but not political. She is not the sort who is inclined to make trouble. The two Tunisian police officers who raped her probably picked up on her innocence. Yet, the college student from the country has the naïve notion that she should get for the crimes she suffered. Youssef will support her search for justice, sometimes perhaps with a bit too much reformist zeal. He was an activist during the Jasmine protests, who was getting extortion money for a third corrupt copper at the time of Chaouch's attack. He still witnessed plenty.
With him by her side, Chaouch tries to make reports at various hospitals and police stations, but everyone, men and women alike, callously refers her back to the neighbor precinct where her rapists are stationed, to file the bureaucratically mandated complaint. She can hardly believe it herself when she does exactly that. At that point, their lives are very much in danger. It is worth noting there is at least one good cop in the station, perhaps, but he is vastly outnumbered.
A long night deserves long takes—nine of them to be exact, one for each of the films chapters. Thanks to digital technology, this is easier to do than in the days of Hitchcock’s Rope, but it is still a gutsy call. Yet, it works quite well in this case. Frankly, Ben Hania is not flashy about it, but she uses the tight, hand-held camera work to build a sense of uncomfortable confinement. It also might have been a bit of method aid for the ensemble to crank up the tension.
Clearly, Mariam Al Ferjani needed no such help, because her screen debut as Chaouch is a jaw-dropping tour de force. Even though Ben Haria keeps the actual violence off-screen you feel it very directly through her pain and confusion. Arguably, Ghanem Zrelli is the weak link, who often looks like he is just there as Youssef to help facilitate the business on screen. However, Noomen Hamda is quietly and rather profoundly compelling as Chedli, a veteran detective appalled by his colleagues’ criminal behavior, but whose conscience and courage is maybe not yet at a tipping point. That is a tricky place to play a character, but he pulls it off remarkably well.
To her credit, Ben Hania never waters down the extent to which Islamist misogyny contributes to Chaouch's plight. In one telling scene, a particularly ruthless cop makes a point of discussing with Youssef the absence of Joseph of Nazareth from the Quran. The implications of that, coming in a police interrogation room, are pretty chilling. Ben Hania’s previous hybrid-doc The Challat of Tunis had some interesting elements, but Beauty represents a whole new level of cinematic accomplishment. Very highly recommended, especially for anyone who wants to understand the post-Jasmine world, Beauty and the Dogs opens this Friday (3/23) in Los Angeles, at the Landmark Nuart.