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Navel Gazing 

Flick Chick

Published December 4, 2002 at 5:00 p.m.

In the North African country of Tunisia, belly dancing is more than sultry females with exposed navels undulating for audiences of leering men. It's an ancient art form that in the 21st century can inspire a nascent sense of women's liberation. At least that's what happens in Satin Rouge, a directorial debut by Raja Amari opening this weekend at the Savoy Theater in Montpelier. Exposed navels and leering men do appear in the film, but the titillation is less important than the self-discovery.

Lilia, played by the lovely Palestinian actress Hiam Abass, is a dowdy middle-aged woman who cleans house obsessively, talks to a photo of her dead husband, watches soap operas and frets about her teenage daughter. Salma (Hend El Fahem) is not so much rebellious as keen to escape her solemn home environment -- she wants to party. She's also sleeping with a handsome young musician named Chokri (Maher Kamoun) but doesn't dare introduce him to her overprotective mother.

One night, while searching for Salma, Lilia stumbles into a smoke-filled Tunis cabaret and faints at the sight of professional belly dancers strutting their stuff. The exuberant atmosphere both shocks and thrills her. She recovers backstage under the nurturing care of Folla (Monia Hichri), a let-it-all-hang-out performer who soon persuades the repressed widow to try being a little more footloose.

With a few lessons and a wildly re-vealing costume, the voluptuous Lilia becomes an accomplished belly dancer -- a clandestine occupation that must be kept secret from everyone else who knows her. Her double life gets more complicated when she takes up with none other than Chokri, a percussionist at the club who is unaware of the almost incestuous nature of his fling.

Amari, who is also the screenwriter, ties up all the loose ends without exactly resorting to happily-ever-after. In fact, her ending is ambiguous enough to allow for a sequel. Satin Rouge, which delves into a curious cultural phenomenon half a world away, makes the further adventures of Lilia seem like an entertaining prospect.

-Many people are rooting for the bittersweet Y Tu Mama Tambien to win this year's foreign-language Oscar. The movie, about a woman with private sorrows who helps two adolescent boys come of age, is one of several recent productions from Mexico that explore daring themes with panache. The country south of our border must be in the midst of a cinematic renaissance.

One of the Y Tu Mama stars, Gael Garcia Bernal, appears in The Crime of Father Amaro, a controversial current release about amorous heterosexual priests that is breaking Mexican box-office records. The actor also portrays a desperate victim of unrequited desire in Amores Perros, a 2001 picture that will be screened at Middlebury College's Dana Auditorium at 3 and 8 p.m. on Saturday. Idiomatically translated as Love's a Bitch, the Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu film traces the intersection of several characters -- all of them terribly flawed -- whose stories initially seem disparate. The first saga concerns Octavio (Bernal). Smitten with Susana (Vanessa Bauche), he relentlessly tries to convince the girl to flee her abusive marriage to his own brother, a petty thief played by Mario Perez.

To pay for their theoretical bus trip out of town, Octavio enters the family pooch in brutal fights. Anyone with a pet might have some difficulty watching these scenes, despite the director's careful editing and assurance in the closing credits that no animals were actually harmed.

Despite some early winnings, Octavio's plan fails and leads to a car accident that involves a stunning model, Valeria (Goya Toledo). Her tale is, in some ways, the most harrowing of the three bleak chapters in this tragedy. She has just moved in with her married boyfriend when fate cruelly intervenes. Valeria's tiny Lhasa Apso, Richie, figures significantly in the downward spiral of her once-perfect life.

The third segment wraps itself around the first two, although that connection is not immediately apparent. El Chivo (Emilio Echevarria), a disillusioned guerrilla who served time in prison, lives in squalor with several canines and earns money as a hit man. One such assignment unravels just as his parental past comes back to haunt him. In this case, it's fatherly rather than conjugal affection that is at stake.

Love might be a bitch, but Amores Perros is a reminder that human beings are often prone to beastly behavior.

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Susan Green


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