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Night in Tunisia

boy and mom
Family Affair: Young Noura (Selim Boughedir) learns about women's power in Tunis from his mother (Rabia Ben Abdallah).

A Muslim boy glimpses a world of womanly wonder in 'Halfaouine'

By Richard von Busack

Set in Tunis, Halfaouine, a.k.a. Boy of the Terraces, is the story of a flustered adolescent's discovery of sex in bottled-up Muslim North Africa. He's both pestered and tantalized by the pious local women. They are a tantalizing lot, telling dirty jokes, belly dancing and doing that hair-raising vocal ululation that they used to scare the French in The Battle of Algiers.

No wonder the men there have such mortal terror of women--they must feel, like the French did before them, that they're barely in charge. Noura (Selim Boughedir), the young hero, watches two older chums bird-dogging women in the market and hears this exchange: "That veil looks really good on you." "Like it? I'll make it your shroud," says the offended party.

At times, the besotted Noura is like a young Robert Crumb gazing hopelessly at the big women. Since he's still essentially a little boy, he gets washed in the female side of the steam bath. Europeans, seduced by Orientalism, used to daydream about what went on inside those baths. The camera shows us women more obese than you'd expect from the Ingres paintings, but Noura can't believe his eyes. Unfortunately, he's caught looking, and the attendants are ready to bar him. Fortunately, his sexy aunt Jamilla pleads his case.

Noura is a boy in great danger of not learning how important it is that a man avoid socializing with women--even when his father tries to slap it into him. His best friend is a feminized type, too--not a manly Ernest Borgnine-looking shopkeeper/hypocrite like his dad, who makes passes at the very same scarlet women he complains about sheltering. And just as Noura is getting over his crush on Jamilla, the family takes on another knockout boarder, a naive maid named Leila.

It's a soft-core scheme made forgivable by an number of points. First, the mild pleas for sexual freedom are dearly bought in Tunis, which stands a worse danger of becoming a conservative theocracy than even the United States. The locations in the Halfaouine quarter of Tunis are little-seen and beautiful, with near-fairy tale shots of Noura scampering over the whitewashed walls and roof tops. Director and screenwriter Ferid Boughedir keeps the tone light without silliness, hinting at trouble brewing for the free thinkers without turning the film from its main interest.

The film is worth catching for no better reason than the ethnographic look at casbah life and for its sexiness. Underhandedly feminist works like Halfaouine are much more fun to watch than stuff that wears its politics on its sleeve, even if it does sometimes have more in common with the Porky movies than The Apu Trilogy. Noura honestly likes to marvel at women, the fat ones, the thin ones, the old ones, the young ones.

Halfaouine (Unrated; 98 min.), directed and written by Ferid Boughedir and starring Selim Boughedir.

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From the Mar. 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro

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