Directed by Kaouther Ben Hania
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, June 15–17
New films from Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, and Algeria
Visit mfa.org for the schedule
Beauty and the Dogs takes us through one hellish night of a young rape victim, Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani). Her odyssey—a living nightmare—floors us not only with her reality, but also with what we ourselves ignore when such heinous actions don’t touch our lives personally. Set in Tunisia’s criminal justice system, the film’s message pertains to the world, for everywhere on earth police forces, courts, and governments can’t be relied on to uphold right from wrong. We witness in Beauty and the Dogs a pandemic societal sickness: the dishonesty, bullying, intimidation, violence, and trauma inflicted on anyone who can’t “afford justice.” Hypocrisy, chicanery, and inhumanity rule the law.
Bright, fun-loving Mariam organizes a dance at her college in Tunis. Her prim, high-collared dress for the party tears, so her friend Naila lends her a low-cut, satin-blue, slinky dress that Mariam reluctantly puts on, as she’s a fairly abiding Muslim woman. The two friends leave the changing room and enter the low-lit, music-filled party, with men and women dancing and flirting. Mariam immediately notices an attractive man, Youssef (Ghanem Zrelli), who also notices her.
Beauty and the Dogs is based on a true story published as a novel in 2013, titled Guilty of Having Been Raped. Following the format of a book, the film develops in chapters, starting with the party, and with subsequent episodes moving through a nightmarish maze of Tunis’s private and public hospitals and its police stations, as Mariam tries to press charges for her rape. Instead of being helped by doctors and police, she’s turned away because those people who could (and should) help her fear for their own safety, or, in the case of the police, they’re criminal and will find reasons to arrest Mariam rather than their cohorts. It’s the verisimilitude of Mariam’s terrifying odyssey that penetrates the viewer with the reality of our world’s morality. The movie’s title suggests “beauty” stands for life and “dogs” for human beings.
Youssef, Mariam’s new boyfriend, whom the police handcuff in order to rape her, faces the same brutality as Mariam, making the movie not solely about a Muslim woman’s plight, but about people in general—the regular people and the minorities who face treachery and ridicule when they seek justice. An elder policeman at the station, Chedly, witnesses repeatedly his younger colleagues’ transgressions and ultimately stands up for right over wrong, again, showing us that not all men are the vile creatures we’re treated to in this movie—and they are very, very bad. Kudus to the actors taking on such depraved roles.
Mariam, though helped initially by Youssef until he’s carted off to jail on false charges, faces an unimaginable ordeal after just being raped. Her face and mechanical way of walking show her trauma. It’s hard to imagine how she carries on after each door closes on her, leaving her alone with the demons chasing her down. Ever onward she stumbles, insisting she’ll bring the perpetrators to trial.
The most powerful scene in Mariam’s odyssey is when she decides to call her father. She realizes that in order to press charges her story will go public and her family will find out about her “disgrace.” Mustering once more remarkable courage, this young college student calls her father and asks him to please come to the station as fast as possible, “because these people are frightening me.”
The insanity of the night finally ends, and Mariam steps out of the station into daylight, a seemingly more rational world. But the air is heavy, clouded, unresolved. Her difficult future lies ahead—the work, the sacrifice of life, to prove how justice is synonymous with bad guys, crooks, corruption. Her story has deeply penetrated us. Do we get up, go home, and forget this movie, or do we remember it and take action?-->