Although Lilia (Hiam Abbass) wears the proper housedresses of the middle-aged Arab widow she is, there’s a restless, sexual woman wrapped in her lumpy cardigan sweaters: As the warm and exotic Tunisian import Satin Rouge begins, Lilia sketches a sinuous dance in private even as she dusts her spotless Tunis home. Cleaning and cooking for her daughter, Salma, fill Lilia’s long, empty days, but the feisty teenager is rarely around and, suspecting the girl is flirting with a handsome cabaret musician (Maher Kamoun), Lilia follows the fellow into a club one night — and succumbs to the siren call of belly dancing.
Not without decorous apprehension, of course. Tunisian-born writer-director Raja Amari, who studied filmmaking in Paris, plays out Lilia’s personal reawakening slowly, with a canny balance of made-for-export feminist flair and politic ethnic pride, enhanced by Abbass’ elegant sensuality. As Lilia sneaks out at night more and more frequently, she’s welcomed by a sisterhood of dancers, cheered by the men for whom she begins to undulate in public — and ogled by her daughter’s Romeo. But although Lilia is clearly excited by the sequined vie bohème she samples — wonderfully personified by Monia Hichri as the head mama/hot mama who welcomes the newbie — she doesn’t transform herself the way a Western movie heroine might.
”Satin Rouge” undoubtedly downplays the seamier, less attractive experiences of Arab women and men in Tunisian cabaret culture, and plays up the fairy-tale charm of the universal ”Flashdance” formula in an unusual setting. That Amari dances the picture into spangled corners of humor and a very original denouement is the filmmaker’s own slinkiest trick.