MAN OF ASHES (Nouri Bouzid, 1986)

Young carpenter Hachemi is reluctantly headed for an arranged marriage in Nouri Bouzid’s moody, painfully oblique Rih essed, from Tunisia. It is a tale of two mentors who schematically embody two contrary sets of experiences from Hachemi’s past. One mentor continues to exert a benign influence; this is kindly Mr. Levy, a Jewish man who gives Hachemi a cherished lute as an early wedding gift although he has every intention of attending the Muslim ceremony. The other mentor is Ameur, to whom Hachemi and friend Farfat were apprenticed as boys—a man who routinely raped both of them behind closed doors. Memories of the abuse bubble up now; while Hachemi has attempted all along to transcend this sordid past, Farfat has been undone by it. “Farfat is not a man” has been scrawled on an exterior wall in the village. Protective of his friend, Hachemi wants to know who would write such a thing. Farfat claims to have written it himself, explaining, “Who has shamed his friends?” Farfat feels he is depraved because of what has been done to him. Things come to a head for both of them the night that Hachemi attempts to ease into marriage by visiting a bordello.
     Manhood is an obsessive concern for Arab males, who drench themselves in perfume and inflict their authority on women perhaps to both express and protect themselves from their own self-uncertainty. As a result, Bouzid’s film has been considered bold; but it probes nothing. Rather, it is a thin, indulgent spectacle, longer on homoerotic mood than any socio-existential insight. It is more a gesture than a film.
     It also contains a sick, flamboyant instance of adolescent cruelty: Farfat’s continuously, rapidly twirling a cat by her tail as the innocent creature screams in ghastly pain. I get it: this is how Farfat himself felt in Ameur’s clutches. But what a mentally or morally challenged person Bouzid must be to portray Farfat’s damaged soul in such a crude way.
     Most of the acting is melodramatic and atrocious.

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