“Do you think you’re living in Sweden?” asks the titular hairstylist of “Huda’s Salon” with a sigh, although her question is surely rhetorical: After all, both she and the captor who is conducting her inquisition actually reside amid the brain-bending complexity of Bethlehem.
For women like Huda (Manal Awad, “The Idol”), there is no one to rely on, no one to trust, no one to confide in. And when it comes to self-protective betrayal, she has learned her lessons well.
Writer-director Hany Abu-Assad envisions his characters as nesting dolls, each enclosed by someone bigger or more powerful. Huda is a victim of the Palestinian resistance, pitiless spies who are watched at every step by equally unforgiving Israeli soldiers. Her victim is Reem (Maisa Abd Elhadi), a young mother who simply wants a bit of a break.
Like all women in her punitively patriarchal family, Reem has only two approved roles — dutiful wife and dedicated parent — so for a few minutes, she can escape by complaining to her sympathetic hairstylist. But the resistance has tasked Huda with bringing a constant supply of information, so she’s always looking for naive young women to blackmail. And soon, Huda’s political thriller becomes Reem’s horror movie.
“Huda’s Salon” follows close behind Asghar Farhadi’s “A Hero” and Mehdi Barsaoui’s “A Son” in turning seemingly straightforward situations into impossibly complex moral mazes of the Middle East. Huda appears to be an obvious villain until we see her with Hasan (Ali Suliman, “Paradise Now”), the soldier who demands she sacrifice her own life for his cause. Reem’s husband, Yousef (Jalal Masarwa), seems so sensitive and concerned that we’re frustrated by her refusal to tell him the truth—until the moment when we understand fully why she can’t.
Impactful as they are, Abu-Assad — who also made the Oscar-nominated “Paradise Now” — is wise enough to underplay these reveals. Each is merely another trail, twisting around until we come ever closer to a rotten core.
His approach adds compelling strength to what feels, a bit too often, like a simply sketched scenario. The story is based on real events, which should make it even more gripping, but Abu-Assad and cinematographers Ehab Assal and Peter Flinckenberg draw the rope so tightly around the leads that the suffocating atmosphere reads almost like a filmed play.
Fortunately, Abu-Assad does have two excellent collaborators in Awad and Elhadi. Despite the expressive eyes and gentle nature that suggest a childlike innocence, Reem realizes the depth of her dilemma far better than we do. It’s not merely that these women have no power, but that these men have so much. Regardless of Huda’s duplicity, Reem’s fate was never going to be her own.
Awad is a stand-up comedian, and her arid sense of humor is a perfect, and perfectly unsettling, contrast to Reem’s open emotions. She is in an impossibly unfair trap, but she doesn’t waste time on complaints. She actively pulls other women into that same trap, but doesn’t bother with guilt. And Abu-Assad pulls the rug out each time we’re ready to make our own judgments.
He has his own endgame, which reaches to the center of the maze. The construction is only partially successful, but the paths draw us all the way in. It’s just hard to say which route is more disturbing: the cruelty of Huda’s jaded experience, or the pain of Reem’s dawning comprehension.
“Huda’s Salon” opens in US theaters and on demand March 4.