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Review: Woman’s courage on display in Tunisian sexual assault drama ‘Beauty and the Dogs’

****HOLIDAY SNEAKS 2018***DO NOT USE PRIOR TO SUNDAY, JANUARY 14, 2018********(L-R) - Mariam Al Ferj
Mariam Al Ferjani, right, in the movie “Beauty and the Dogs.”
(Mahdi Chaker / Oscilloscope Laboratories)

A night that begins with the fizzy high of a new flirtation turns into a labyrinthine plunge through hell in “Beauty and the Dogs.” At the center of the gut-churning story, set in post-revolution Tunisia, is the off-screen rape of a college student by policemen — and the Catch-22 that requires her to report the crime to the police before she can receive medical attention, let alone justice.

As the traumatized Mariam, the terrific Mariam Al Ferjani is fully attuned to her brutal awakening. Compared with the political dissident (Ghanem Zrelli) who sparks her attention at a party, she’s a wide-eyed provincial. The skimpy dress she reluctantly borrows that night becomes a kind of curse that brands her, and writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania wisely never lets us look away from her emotional and physical exposure.

Ben Hania tells the agonizing story in nine chapters, each a single, uninterrupted shot. Her stylistic choices — the fluid camerawork, the heightened palette edging from dream to nightmare — initially intensify the drama. Yet as Mariam careens between hospitals and police stations, facing bureaucratic indifference and misogyny, the movie’s fever pitch begins to feel at odds with its artistry.

Chilling Kafkaesque encounters give way to portrayals of thuggish cops bordering on caricature. In distractingly blunt ways, the film emphasizes what’s already powerfully clear: the monstrousness of Mariam’s situation and her courage.

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‘Beauty and the Dogs’

In Arabic with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

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Playing: Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles

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