Caleb Cotter checks out Sweetness in the Belly, a Canadian-Irish co-production of an adaptation of Camilla Gibb’s bestseller, directed by Zeresenay Berhane Mehari.
Before seeing Zeresenay Berhane Mehari’s second feature as director, I decided to spend a few minutes online researching it. Immediately, I found that it was under scrutiny for having Dakota Fanning play a “White Ethiopian Muslim”, a controversy the internet had created based off short clips of the film released online. Soon after, I closed my laptop and moved on to something productive, ready to let the film speak for itself. After watching, I couldn’t help but see the irony of the controversy, as the film seemed to argue similar points to what people had argued against it online.
Based on Camilla Gibb’s book of the same name, Sweetness in the Belly starts with Lilly (Dakota Fanning), a white Muslim woman, travelling to Britain as a refugee after the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution. She is immediately given priority over the other Muslim women, much to their dismay, but immediately sets about trying to help her fellow refugees and settle into British society. This journey is intercut with flashbacks to Lilly past, where we discover she was abandoned by her British parents at a young age at a Sufi shrine in Ethiopia and was raised by the Sufi master, and falls in love with Dr Aziz Nasser (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) during the final years of Haile Selassie’s reign, who she is trying to find in the present.
As you can see, there’s a lot going on in this film, and the film is able to carry out the story in an emotional and sincere way. Also, like his previous film Difret, Mehari delves fully into exploring his home country of Ethiopia; from its culture, social and religious beliefs, its complex political history and the ways refugees from the region were treated and how they set up life upon reaching a new country.
However, while the exploration of such subjects is possibly the most interesting part of the film, it also proves to be its biggest shortcoming. It feels like the film doesn’t quite know where to focus its attention, splitting it between the myriad of complex themes and political histories, as well as Lilly’s story and journey. Due of this lack of focus, and despite Fanning’s best efforts, Lilly never feels like a rounded, believable person but more so a blank slate we can see the world from, which takes much of the wind out of her love story that the film spends so much time on. And since the film spends so much time on this love story, it only gets to dip its toes into each of the complicated subjects and thus never explores them as fully as it means to.
However, while Lilly is never given the time to develop beyond that of her role as the protagonist, the supporting cast carry the film and bring most of the emotional depth to it. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Aziz and Kunal Nayyar as an Indian doctor Lilly meets in a hospital in Britain shine as well-rounded individuals who attempt to charm Lilly throughout the film and bring great levity in the film’s darker moments.
But it is Wunmi Mosaku as Amina, a fellow Ethiopian refugee and mother of two who Lilly takes in, who is the stand-out performance, as her story and presence becomes the bedrock of the film and the centre of the film’s most emotional moments. These moments are supplemented with a beautiful array of colour that breaks up the usual grey look of dramas with moments that feel like technicolour was used. However, the film does get a little too stylish during its emotional climax, taking some of the punch out of the moment.
Despite its flaws, Sweetness in the Belly stands as a solid, emotionally driven drama that covers a variety of complicated topics, although its attempt to split its focus on both these aspects causes both to not be explored fully, leading to the film not leaving as much of an impact as it could have.
Sweetness in the Belly screened on Sun 10th Nov @ 17:45 & Mon 11th Nov as part of the 2019 Cork Film Festival (7 – 17 November).
- Director: Zeresenay Berhane Mehari
- Producer(s): Jennifer Kawaja
- Screenwriter(s): Laura Phillips
- Main Cast: Dakota Fanning, Wunmi Mosaku
- Country: Ireland, Canada
- Language(s): Subtitled
- Year: 2019