Sweetness in the Belly, adapted from the bestselling 2006 novel by Camilla Gibbs, appears to be the ultimate fish-out-of-water tale as the central character, Lilly Abdal (Dakota Fanning), a blond-haired, blue-eyed pious Muslim lives happily in Ethiopia, comfortable with the cultural milieu and intense religious practices.
But Sweetness in the Belly is a sidewinder. You think it’s a tragic love story set during the post-Haile Selassie revolutionary coup. But after you watch it, you realize that this is a tale of female resilience–despite all odds and patriarchal restraints.
Sweetness in the Belly feels like an homage, especially to female refugees of any background, who must endure far more indignities and outright assaults and crimes than their male counterparts. Especially those women who travel alone.
The story of Lilly is that of a child abandoned at the age of seven by her hippie drug-addled English parents in Morocco, the child left with a benevolent (we assume) Sufi mystic named Abdal.
In an unimaginable act of abandonment, Lilly’s parents never come back for her. Treating her as a beloved daughter, Abdal educated her in the practice of Sufism, the more enlightened and liberal mystical form of Islam. She became his sole female student, sheltered in his cloistered way of life — and naive to the ways of the outside world outside, to racism, female repression and the inherent threat of Islamic extremism.
As Ethiopian politics and society destabilize, Lilly must seek refuge outside the country. Eventually she finds her way to England, the country of her birth but now a place and culture as foreign to her as can be except for the fact that she speaks the language.
Lilly’s former life in Ethiopia is shown in a series of flashbacks that reveal her romantic involvement with an Ethiopian doctor, Dr. Aziz (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who is acutely aware that she is white, although she seems to lack awareness about their racial difference because of her immersive upbringing.
In Ethiopia, Lilly moved from Abdal’s protective environment to new lodging that was arranged by Gishta (Edelework Tassew), a local sheikh’s wife. In her new home, Lilly witnessed the brutality and danger of female genital mutilation, an event that lead to her meeting her medic love interest.
Eventually, their affair and Aziz’s affiliation with the Derg, the military junta that overthrew Haile Selassie, puts them in danger. Aziz arranges for Lilly to flee the country, but he is arrested and his fate is then unknown to her.
When Lilly is allowed to enter England with refugee status, she settles in a large shared flat in Brixton, where she befriends Amina (Wunmi Mosaku), a wary Ethiopian refugee who has fled the same war.
As they get to know one another, Amina realizes that Lilly is as guileless as a white woman living solo in an ethnic ghetto can be about racial prejudice. Amina and Lilly eventually embark on a project to help women refugees find and reunite with their scattered families.
Dakota Fanning is graciously subtle in her performance, and she allows the adept supporting cast to make their cinematic marks. Her Lilly is reserved to the point of nearly disappearing, never wanting to draw attention to herself, save for her moments we see her with her lover Aziz and her caring for Amina, who’d been brutalized in the refugee camps.
Directed by Zeresenay Mehari, Sweetness in the Belly is also a hard look at the idea that your race can never let you fully melt into a completely foreign culture without constant suspicion. And that all women bear the heaviest burdens when it comes to poverty, war and religious rules and laws aimed to sequester them, tame and eradicate their libido, and monitor their every move by their men in this short life.
DP Tim Fleming captures the chaotic energy of revolution in the shadows and light of dusty Ethiopia embroiled in political turmoil as screenwriter Laura Phillips’ script does not exactly deep dive into the bizarre ideology and deity-level worship that Selassie was given by Rastafarians. Nor does it give us complete and satisfying insight as to why Lilly’s seemingly adoring father allowed his young daughter to be left at a temple full of men he did not know.
The former is a complex and fascinating 20th century history accounting for you to read up on further, and the latter is a vexing loose end that should have not been glossed over as a short and overly simplified third party explanation to Lilly.
In the end, resilience is the theme here as Lilly has no degree but through her training wins a bid to practice her nursing at a London hospital. She is armed with Arabic and Amharic language skills, and Lilly soon becomes invaluable because of the neighborhood demographics of newly arriving Ethiopian refugees. She forges new friendships, meets a new doctor, and lives a new life, now considered home.