Flesh Out

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Flesh Out
"Ochipinti's film benefits from a strong documentary underpinning - with the lead actress saying that 70 per cent of what occurs is based on her own story at the film's Berlin screening - showing how strong cultural expectations like this can be." | Photo: Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival/Vivo Film

In the West, the run-up to a wedding day often involves some sort of diet, as the bride-to-be aims to look "her best" on the day. This idea of conforming to expectations is flipped on its belly in Michelle Ochipinti's accomplished feature debut, co-written with Simona Coppini. Set in Mauritania it concerns the practice of "gavage" in the run-up to the nuptials of Verida (Verida Beitta Ahmed Deiche). The word, which means force-feeding, is usually used in association with the fattening of geese for foie gras but the process here is shown to be not much more humane, with Verida woken before dawn each day to consume the first of her 10 meals of the day. Big is beautiful and disobedience discouraged.

Ochipinti's film benefits from a strong documentary underpinning - with the lead actress saying that 70 per cent of what occurs is based on her own story at the film's Berlin screening - showing how strong cultural expectations like this can be. Verida and her friend Amal (Amal Saad Bouh Oumar) live what might be considered largely self-defined lives. Amal - who permanently wears her Beats Studio headphones over her traditional Melahfa clothing, has already been married and quickly divorced. Verida, though initially consumed by the tradition, begins to have second thoughts after Sidi (Sidi Mohamed Chinghaly), the young man who brings round a set of scales to check her weight gain each week, starts to take a shine to her.

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Food in general has rarely been as unappetising as it is here, with Ochipinti and cinematographer Daria D'Antonio frequently showing shots of flies as preludes to Verida's next eating session, all of which are are accompanied by the unappealing slurp of milk. The wider unspoken toll of the regime is also subtly suggested by the fact that her mother is getting up even earlier than her daughter in order to prepare each bowl of food - while later we'll learn that this version of the fattening "leblouh" tradition is itself watered down from the previous requirement to eat an entire animal in one night or die in the attempt.

The film, which would have been better sticking to a direct translation of its Italian title "The Body of the Bride" rather than the sensationalist Flesh Out, builds gently to its emotional highs. Ochipinti also avoids simply crescendoing to a single lightbulb moment, instead allowing peaks to form in unusual places, such as a hen party style 'wengala', filled with food and dancing, or an unexpected rendition of Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire - these are often accompanied by Alexa Braga's scoring, which soars with female vocal harmonies at appropriate points. This is not a film of forced revelation but of small but determined personal revolutions that has something to say about normalising of societal pressures on women and the fact realising we're being conditioned to conform from the outset is the first step towards change, wherever we might live.

Reviewed on: 14 Feb 2019
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Verida is due to marry in three months. According to a Mauritanian tradition, she has to put on a lot of weight to appeal to her husband. The weight gain process gets harder as it progresses, and Verida begins to ask herself if this is what she really wants.

Director: Michela Occhipinti

Writer: Simona Coppini, Michela Occhipinti

Starring: Verida Beitta Ahmed Deiche, Sidi Mohamed Chinghaly, Aminetou Souleimane, Amal Saad Bouh Oumar, Verida Beitta Ahmed Deiche, Sidi Mohamed Chinghaly, Aminetou Souleimane, Amal Saad Bouh Oumar

Year: 2019

Runtime: 94 minutes

Country: Italy, France

Festivals:

BIFF 2019

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