The most provocative and polarizing film of the 2010 NYFF, French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche’s Black Venus takes us on an unsparing journey through the brief life of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, the indigenous South African woman infamously exhibited as the exotic “Hottentot Venus” in the traveling carnivals and bourgeois salons of 19th-century Europe. In a torrential performance, screen newcomer Yahima Torres (a native of Cuba who was working as a Spanish teacher when Kechiche cast her) brings Baartman to life in all her complexities and contradictions, particularly her relationships with the two men who alternately serve as her captors, enablers and impresarios—the Afrikaaner farmer Caezar and the larger-than-life bear tamer Réaux (the excellent Olivier Gourmet, star of the Dardenne brothers’ La Promesse and The Son). Shooting in long, brilliant handheld camera takes, Kechiche (The Secret of the Grain) puts the audience in the position of Baartman’s 19th-century voyeurs, making for a movie that is sometimes uncomfortable to watch and always impossible to forget as it puts an agonizingly human face on one of history’s senselessly exploited victims.

“Yahima Torres’s remarkably complex portrayal of the title character reveals not just a mute symbol of victimhood but also a woman capable of fierce defiance.” —NYFF48 program note

“Kechiche details this sad, slow erasure of dignity with an impassive eye, though not without compassion or empathy. And he has in Yahima Torrès an actress nearly as astute in expressing delicate female emotions under enormous stress as Maria Falconetti was in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, another sobering chronicle of a martyr's persecution.” —Kenji Fujishima, The House Next Door