An unusually happy film about a circumcised woman

Updated: Oct 20, 2010, 15:33 PM IST

California: ‘Desert Flower,’ based on the autobiography by Waris Dirie, a Somali immigrant who became a fashion model and social activist, forgoes subtlety and overlooks contradictions in its depiction of a circumcised woman`s triumph over adversity.

Slick production values, exotic African scenery (tiny Djibouti subbing for lawless Somalia), a cast of veteran British character actors and a moving story are all pluses.

On the other hand, the grisly subject matter is hardly multiplex fare. German writer-director Sherry Hormann includes a horrifying, graphic re-enactment of Dirie`s genital mutilation as a child, seen in a flashback. Following its recent screening at the Mill Valley (Calif.) Film Festival, ‘Desert Flower’ will be released domestically in February by National Geographic Entertainment.

When a barely pubescent Dirie, the daughter of impoverished nomads in Somalia, discovers she`s been sold into marriage by her father, she escapes on the eve of her wedding, fleeing across miles of parched earth; these early scenes of a desperate but astonishingly determined and self-reliant girl are among the film`s strongest.

Eventually landing in London and working as an illegal immigrant, Dirie, now a willowy, regal beauty (played with quiet conviction by Ethiopian model Liya Kebede), is taken in by a sweetly wacky, aspiring dancer (Sally Hawkins).

In short order, she attracts the attention of a famous fashion photographer (a rumpled Timothy Spall), a slovenly fellow who apparently disdains shoes and shaving in equal measure, and is hired by a brusque, bitchy modeling agent (the usually delightful Juliet Stevenson, hamming it up), a diva who treats her eager charges like chattel, inspects their bodies for flaws and makes it clear they`re money-making machines. The script glosses over the more distasteful aspects of this arrangement by playing it for laughs.

A love interest (Anthony Mackie) appears briefly, but potential complications, given Dirie`s traumatic history, are alluded to but not explored. Although Dirie`s looks and the fashion industry were her ticket out, the superficial glitz of that world seems at odds with the serious, profoundly disturbing issue at the film`s core. Proudly strutting down the catwalk is extolled here as a pinnacle of human achievement as opposed to, say, graduating from Oxford, though the film does culminate with her speaking at the U.N.

Yes, Dirie came a long way from being sold off in Somalia but rather than examine what might have become of her if she hadn`t been so beautiful, the film opts for uplift, driven home by Martin Todsharow`s soaring, sometimes overbearing score.

Bureau Report