Following a university party that young Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani) organized, she is raped by police officers. In the aftermath, she seeks aid, for which she finds little except for a stranger named Youssef (Ghanem Zrelli) who is keen on getting her medical treatment and helping her report the crime. As the night progresses, so does the anguish, with Mariam being turned away, her pleas for help ignored or rejected. Bureaucracy, apathy, and complicity have allowed evil to thrive in this Tunisian city, setting Mariam on a collision course with the very men who attacked her.
The only apt word for writer/director Kaouther Ben Hania‘s Beauty and the Dogs is harrowing. Though not a horror film, it is horrific and will rattle you to your core. Ben Hania has impressively structured the film in nine distinct chapters, each of which is presented a single take. Each chapter is like a descent into the next layer of hell, inescapable for both Mariam and the audience as the camera never cuts away.
I found myself praying the film would veer into the rape/revenge exploitation genre such so there could be some relief from the relentless despair, but it never comes. In many ways, this film repudiates that genre for assuming the slaughtering of the evil-doers could somehow undo or, at least, alleviate the trauma of the victim. Instead, Mariam finds strength in perseverance, unlike much ever depicted on screen. Mariam Al Ferjani is simply astonishing in the lead, turning in a performance that is both heartbreaking and inspiring.
This film is not easy to watch by any measure, but it is an accomplished and potent work that will stay with you long after it ends. Ben Hania likened it to a nightmare, which couldn’t be more spot-on. Now that I’ve experienced it, I’m not quite sure when the nightmare will end.
Beauty and the Dogs opens opens theatrically via Oscilloscope Laboratories today, March 23rd in NYC at Landmark 57 West and in LA at the Nuart.