Arab Blues portrays a charming female psychiatrist—and her North African country—at the crossroads

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      Arab Blues

      Starring Golshifteh Farahani. Screens starting Friday (July 31) via Fims We Like, selecting the Vancity Theatre.

      French-Tunisian director Manele Labidi’s light and radiantly shot new look at a decidedly modern but conflicted Tunis may be just the cure for your own COVID-era blues right now.

      It follows the chic, deadpan, and endlessly watchable Selma, who has returned to the capital of Tunisia after a decade away in France. She’s determined to set up a practice as a shrink in a culture where secular therapy is strange and suspicious territory. She puts her couch in her uncle’s rooftop apartment, though he warns her not to tell anyone that the man in the poster that she has hung prominently (Sigmund Freud, in a fez, no less) is Jewish.

      What’s important to understand is that psychoanalysis would have been banned before the massive 2012 revolution, and in her own way, Selma is offering a hand to a people grappling with momentous chaos and cultural upheaval after the fall of the dictatorship. And soon she has a lineup of tormented community members lined up outside her door.

      What’s even more interesting is how the chainsmoking, tattooed, and Parisian-chic-without-trying Selma knocks up against the new Tunisia and its ideas about the role of women. Some assume she’s a prostitute for hosting men alone in her abode, on a divan no less; many others treat her like an amusing curiosity.

      A lot of the humour surrounds Selma’s interactions with her eccentric stream of patients. But the funniest and most revealing relationship in the film is between Selma and her rebel teen cousin Olfa (Aisha Ben Miled), who wears a headscarf to hide her pink cropped hair. She’s so desperate to leave her isolated world that she’s willing, to Selma’s shock, to marry a gay guy to get out.

      Above all, Selma, so magnetically inhabited by Farahani, is a very different kind of female character than we’re used to seeing from the Arab world: strong, complex, happy to be single, and equal parts wry, smart, and anxious. The fact that the film transports you to the sun-baked streets and rooftops of Tunis, as strikingly Mediterranean as it is rooted in Arab culture, is just the bonus.