Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The aptly named Dunia ('life' or 'dizzy') is 23. A good student at the prestigious University of Cairo, she nurses an ambition to become a belly dancer like her dead mother, despite the horror this provokes in her elderly relatives. But she is struggling to write her thesis about love poetry because she finds it impossible to engage with on any level beyond the intellectual; she is unable to express her feelings. Her dance teacher complains that she is rigid, that she fails to experience her body. "I've never seen my body," she protests. "The first time I saw a naked woman was in a film. A French film. Two years ago."

On the surface a familiar rites of passage tale about the struggle so determine personal identity, Dunia is also a film about Egypt and Egyptian identity, where natural sensuality struggles for expression in a heavily formalised society. Dunia's classmates don't see this the way she does, asserting that they enjoy lots of debauchery at university, but Dunia doesn't seem to be looking for the same thing. Driven more by anger than by lust or sentimental passion, what she wants is something real, and she wants to be able to speak about it openly. For this reason she is drawn to one of her professors, Beshir, a man prepared to risk his life for literary freedom, but meanwhile she seeks the security of old fashioned romance with the awkward but besotted Mamdouh.

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Intensely political, focusing on the difficulties of being a woman in modern Egypt and covering everything from women's right to drive to female genital mutilation, Dunia is also a very sensual film. Given the current climate in Egypt, this sensuality is itself a political statement and has been the cause of some controversy. The dance sequences are beautifully choreographed and ballet star Hanan Turk turns in a terrific physical performance as well as good acting in the central role. She is ably matched by singer Mohamed Mounir, who plays Beshir and also sings all the songs in the film.

If there's a problem with this film, it's that it's too slow and too repetitive to justify its length. Viewers who are older than the central character will be frustrated by watching her banging her head off the same walls over and over again, even whilst respecting her courage in doing so. The film's messages are important ones, but in a less charged climate it's hard to imagine it making as much of an impact.

Reviewed on: 30 May 2008
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A young literature student hopes to become a belly dancer like her mother, but must struggle against traditional expectations and her own inability to express her feelings.

Director: Jocelyn Saab

Writer: Jocelyn Saab

Starring: Hanan Turk, Mohamed Mounir, Fathy Abdel Wahab, Sawsan Badr, Aida Riad, Khaled El Sawi, Youssef Ismail

Year: 2005

Runtime: 112 minutes

Country: Egypt, Lebanon, France


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