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A hair salon becomes a beauty shop of horrors in Palestinian thriller 'Huda's Salon'

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

A Palestinian political thriller called "Huda's Salon" centers on two women who face a terrible choice - betray yourself or your country. Film critic Bob Mondello says if it were only that simple.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Bethlehem, a bustling community in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. A towering separation wall keeps soldiers invisible, and Palestinians need a permit from the Israeli Secret Service to cross over. But as Huda washes Reem's hair, their beauty shop talk is light and breezy, about an annoying shoe shop lady they call the mosquito, Reem's jealous husband, the ghastly home dye jobs women show off on Facebook.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HUDA'S SALON")

MAISA ABD ELHADI: (As Reem, speaking Arabic).

MONDELLO: And would Reem like coffee while she sits under the hair dryer? The images are placid, and you should savor them because what follows starting about halfway through this eight-minute expectation-shattering opening shot will turn Huda's cozy salon into a beauty shop of horrors. I won't say how that happens, exactly, but Reem leaves the salon devastated, knowing she must either spy for the Israeli Secret Service or be publicly shamed and lose her family. And she's only compromised. Huda's situation proves far more dire.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HUDA'S SALON")

MANAL AWAD: (As Huda, speaking Arabic).

MONDELLO: The Palestinian resistance had her salon under surveillance, and Reem's distraught departure did not go unnoticed. Filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad's Oscar-nominated thrillers "Paradise Now" and "Omar" centered on the choices Palestinian men face in an occupied land. He views the women in "Huda's Salon" with the same urgency and the same deftly cinematic eye that catches, say, Reem, baby in arms, as she leaves the salon in front of a graffitied Madonna and child - we're in Bethlehem; remember - or an interrogation scene that's lit as if it were an old masters painting.

That interrogation, in which Huda and a resistance enforcer share secrets and get under each other's skin, and parallel scenes in which Reem tries to share with a husband whose lack of trust makes her skin crawl take up the second half of "Huda's Salon" and transform a tale that seemed to be about a turncoat hairstylist into a broader portrait of a society, one in which desperation and brutality have so corroded moral certainty that nothing feels cut and dried.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.