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An unusually happy film about a circumcised woman

MILL VALLEY, California (Hollywood Reporter) - “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.

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