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September 26, 2001 2:00 AM
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REVIEW: Caught; Tlati Captures Women During "The Season of Men"

REVIEW: Caught; Tlati Captures Women During "The Season of Men"

by Brandon Judell




(indieWIRE/09.26.01) -- What's the difference between Moufida Tlati's Tunisian offering, "The Season of Men," and say some half-assed West Coast/indie bastard such as Tim Blake Nelson's dyspeptic "O" or Ed Burns' forthcoming "Sidewalks of New York"?


Director Richard Brooks probably said it best: "People in Hollywood can't face the truth in themselves or in others."


Well, on Mr. Burns' behalf, he's apparently been enamored of himself for decades, and that's a start. As for Hollywood, it's now a state of mind that has replaced the world's ozone layer. It's pretty much inescapable. But somehow Ms. Tlatli is an escapee.


Overlooking a pacing that could have used a few drops of Jerry Bruckheimer's vital fluids and/or a cropping of twenty or so minutes, "The Season of Men" (playing for two weeks at New York's The Screening Room) is a harrowing, empathetic look at the plight of a woman caught between a generation still handcuffed by old traditions and one that's slightly more feminist. Yes, a new era where the fairer sex can be educated and even be loved by a man who treats her as an equal.


(Please note: every August 13th is now designated as Tunisia's national day for women. And as opposed to other Arabic countries, polygamy was abolished, and the age of 17 was set as the minimum age for girls to be married with their consent. In 1993, it was stipulated that two spouses "must treat each other with kindness and consideration, and assist each other in the management of the household and the affairs of their children." Additionally, earlier this year, Sting had a sold-out concert there, attended by 18,000 fans.


But before we get teary-eyed with bliss, Tunisian journalist and human rights activist Sihem Bensedrine was jailed this year after criticizing the Tunisian government on a TV appearance. And when she was released on August 17, she and her supporters were attacked by 200 plain clothes officers when they refused to disperse and sing the Tunisian national anthem. That's it for background info.


We first meet Aïcha (Rabiaa Ben Abdallah) when she's living in Tunis with her two grown-up daughters, one a married virgin and the other a violinist who's having an affair with an older married man. There's also Aziz, her autistic son, and an old loyal friend from her village, Zeineb (Sabah Bouzouita). Aïcha's spouse, SAïchad (Ezzedine Gennoun), a successful carpet salesman, has apparently left her and now resides in sexual bliss with a mistress in another part of town.


Distraught by the way her life has turned out and the growing difficulties of raising Aziz in a city, Aïcha decides to give up a comparatively luxurious lifestyle to return to the village of Djerba, a place she had once tried so hard to escape from.


With her belongings in tow, Aïcha drives back to the house she married into when she was 18. Back then she gave up her beloved university studies for what was expected of her: to wed and to give birth to sons.


As Aïcha and her clan remake the long abandoned house into some place livable, old memories come back to haunt her. In flashback after flashback, we watch as Aïcha is forced to slowly strip herself of her identity. She is deposited in a homestead of lonely women ruled by an iron-hearted mother-in-law who is the despot of despots. So where are the men?


They're in Tunis trying to make a living 49 weeks a year. They return annually for just 21 days, enough to get their wives pregnant, pay reverence to their elders, and learn to recognize their kids.


Bristling under this frigid tyranny, and looked down upon because she's only given birth to girls at the time, Aïcha starts rebelling. There are hints that she gets physical with Zeineb and possibly a male school teacher. Worst of all, she starts disobeying her mother-in-law. On top of that, what really shakes the foundations of her world is when she asks Saïd, who has just returned home, to cuddle her before the sex act. Shocked, he thinks she's been cheating on him. And eventually, when Aïcha gets her way, she'll learn her dreams are not much better.


"The Season of Men" constantly startles with its incisive look at three generations of women and their progress -- or lack of it -- in a world designed to please those with testicles. In the end, it is not a great film in either structure or pace. But in bravery and insight and soul, it surpasses many others.

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