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Crisis of Faith: A TIFF Review of ‘Sweetness in the Belly’

September 15, 2019Ferdosa Abdi

When it comes to stories about real-world issues — issues that could shake the foundation of an entire nation and challenge the human spirit — it is not enough to just be well-intentioned. Unfortunately, Zeresenay Mehari's Sweetness in the Belly, a film based on the novel by Camilla Gibb, is one of many well-intentioned human dramas that misses the mark completely.

The story follows Lilly (Dakota Fanning), an English-Irish girl who is abandoned in Morocco as a child. She is raised by a Sufi sheikh and later migrates to the city of Harar in Ethiopia with the hope of teaching the Quran. Things do not go as planned, and life becomes especially difficult when Ethiopia falls into political turmoil. The movie flashes back and forth to follow Lilly's life in Harar, where she falls in love with the handsome and outspoken doctor Aziz (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and her life in London with Amina (Wunmi Mosaku), a mother who is also a refugee.

Despite being competently made, Sweetness in the Belly fails to tackle the issue of being a refugee in any real meaningful way. Especially now, in a time when the refugee crisis has become so troubling that it is in the mainstream public consciousness, to sidestep the heartbreak of people like Amina or Aziz is irresponsible, misguided and disingenuous.

Sweetness in the Belly makes its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Its runtime is 1 hr. 50 min.

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