(WOMENSENEWS)–Opening on March 4, "The Imperialists Are Still Alive" is writer-director Zeina Durra’s smartly satirical first feature about a well-to-do Manhattan artist of Arab descent whose liberated lifestyle and work challenge Western stereotypical notions about Arab culture. The film’s subtly subversive attitude is evident from the start, when Asya (Elodie Bouchez) is seen posing for her own art work, wearing an Arab women’s headdress, but nude from the neck down.

Asya’s international coterie–including a Mexican medical student (Jose Maria de Tavira) who’s becoming more than a friend–is a chic crowd whose behavior defies their inherited traditions. But Asya’s discovery that her friend, Faisal, has been sent home on charges of terrorism challenges her carefree lifestyle. This is an appealing and well-made film. And the unwieldy title–taken from a line in Jean-Luc Godard’s "La Chinoise"–is a clue to Durra’s sense of cinematic tradition.

March 11 brings the release of "Certified Copy," directed by Abbas Kiarostami, the acclaimed Iranian filmmaker who often points the camera on engaging women. Set in Tuscany, "Certified Copy" is the first film Kiarostami has directed outside of his homeland. Its sophisticated and sly comedy of manners charts an intriguing relationship between a woman (Juliette Binoche) and man (William Shimmel) who seem to be strangers. When a café owner treats them as man and wife, they relate to each other as though they’re a couple with a complex, intimate history. You’re never quite sure whether they’re pretending or revealing hidden truths about their relationship and their interplay is a captivating study of what’s real and what’s merely a ‘certified copy.’ The film is a gem.

Movie-Going Marathon

Set mid-March aside and gear up for a movie-going marathon later in the month. Six films of special interest to women open March 18. Here they are, in no particular order:

No. 1: Cary Fukunaga’s "Jane Eyre" brings Charlotte Bronte’s beloved novel to the screen with a somber and sober emphasis on the hard and dark realities of impoverished, powerless Victorian-era girls and women. Convincingly played by Mia Wasikowska, young Jane is determined to escape her troubled childhood and survive bleak and threatening circumstances. Screenwriter Moira Buffini’s script imbues period mannerisms with psychological innuendo and moves through several intriguing plot twists. A great spin on a classic.

No. 2: Catherine Hardwicke, having sunk her teeth into "Twilight," returns to the gothic genre with "Red Riding Hood." It’s set in a medieval village where a series of killings are attributed to a werewolf thought to be one of the town’s citizens. The hooded heroine, Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), has not only her grandmother to attend to, but also a love interest–who may or may not be the werewolf. Rated PG-13 for violence, the film is too scary for kids. The "Twilight" generation will undoubtedly find it seductive but will you? Perhaps so, if you’re intrigued by hooded damsels in gothic distress and crave Hardwicke’s helming hand.

No. 3: Distressed girls are also key players in "Cracks." This dramatic thriller is directed by Jordan Scott, daughter of Ridley Scott and niece of Tony Scott, both of whom executive produced this film, her first feature. Based on Sheila Kohler’s novel, "Cracks" is set in an elite British boarding school where a class of repressed teenage girls comes under the influence of a strange teacher who creates calamitous competitions and mutual mistrust among them. Oh, yes, and then there’s the matter of the teacher’s twisted attachments. No spoilers here–see it to satisfy your curiosity.

‘Desert Flower’ a Must See

No. 4: More highly recommended, Sherry Horman’s soulful and surprisingly funny "Desert Flower" is based on the life story of Waris Dirie, a Somali woman who underwent female genital mutilation at age 3. At 13 Dirie ran away from home to avoid being sold into marriage to an older man, landing in London to stay with relatives until they kicked her out. Alone and impoverished, she was by happy circumstance discovered by a photographer who guided her on a path to becoming a top model. Now nearing 40, Dirie campaigns against female genital mutilation and has authored several books, including the eponymous autobiography upon which the film is based. Dirie, a heroine of huge magnitude in real life, is beautifully portrayed by Liya Kebede. The always wonderful Sally Hawkins is cast as a friend who shelters Dirie and becomes her cheering section. Horman’s direction has the right mixture of pathos and humor to keep you completely rapt with the unfolding story. "Desert Flower" is a must see.

No. 5: "The Desert of Forbidden Art," directed by Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev, is a must-see documentary about how Igor Savitsky, an underground art collector, created a world-class museum in remote Uzbekistan to preserve an extraordinary cache of 40,000 art works banned by the Soviet Union. Savitsky, a fascinating cultural hero, convinces a stolid bureaucracy to fund the preservation of paintings it had condemned as socially and politically corrupt. Savitsky’s story is compelling, the art is sensational. This documentary is a treasure.

No. 6: On a lighter note, "Elektra Luxx" is a spoof about a porn star (Carla Gugino) who leaves the biz when she discovers she’s pregnant. Amusing complications arise as she pursues a new career as a school teacher. Luxx is a strong female character who lives life on her terms, but Sebastian Gutierrez’s film, a crème puff of silliness that eschews bad taste, is food for laughter rather than thought.

‘Win Win’ a Winner

Also opening March 18, "Win Win" is neither directed by women nor focused on us, but it’s entirely charming and I highly recommend it. Directed by Tom McCarthy, the film is about Mike (Paul Giamatti), a family man and lawyer who becomes the legal guardian of an aging client so he can collect a much-needed monthly fee. His plan backfires when the elder’s grandson, a sweet but troubled teenager, shows up in need of lodging. Through complex plot twists involving an old age home, wrestling matches and courtroom intrigue, Mike, his wife (Amy Ryan) and the boy (Alex Shaffer, a super talented newcomer) bond–to the betterment of all. Entertaining, endearingly quirky, family friendly and pro-working together to work things out, "Win Win" is a winner.

Last but not least, two worthy films open March 25. For those craving feminist drama, Julian Schnabel’s "Miral," a tense film written by Rula Jebreal and starring Freida Pinto and Hiam Abbas, is about a Palestinian girl who is sent to an orphanage for her own protection during the volatile aftermath of the first Arab-Israeli war, but she finds herself immersed in intensely dangerous political intrigue.

For those craving feminist comedy, Francois Ozon’s refreshing "Potiche" (French for "Model Wife") is about a housewife (Catherine Deneuve) whose opinions are routinely ignored by her overbearing husband (Fabrice Luchini). That is until one day his health problems put her in charge of his business, and she’s so good at it that he becomes his "Potiche." Deneuve brings all her charm to the role. And, as her new love interest, Gerard Depardieu definitely scores points.

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In addition to covering film for Women’s eNews, Jennifer Merin writes about documentaries for About.com (http://documentaries.About.com) and is president of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists (www.AWFJ.org), a nonprofit organization of the leading women film journalists in the U.S. and Canada. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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