Women Without Men
The story of director Shirin Neshat is almost as compelling as her first feature. Born in religiously conservative Qazvin, Iran, Neshat has been using visual art to explore gender relations under Islam for nearly two decades, traveling back and forth between the States and Iran to enrich her perspective. But because her work has been so politically outspoken, Neshat has been exiled from her native country since 1996.
A visionary as courageous as she is condemned, Neshat is perhaps the most likely candidate to direct Women Without Men, an adaptation of Shahrnush Parsipur's sweeping novel. The scope of Parsipur's story is both epic and intimate, juxtaposing the Western imperialist invasion of Tehran with the intertwining lives of four Iranian women during the tumultuous summer of 1953. To call such a project ambitious would be an understatement.
The connection between this political upheaval and the four characters in question is unmistakable; just as the people of Tehran have decided to come together and fight to maintain democracy, these four women have reached an impasse in their own lives. Nearing thirty and still unwedded, Munis (Shabnam Toloui) seeks to escape the oppressive hand of her older brother; Faezeh (Pegah Ferydoni), a rape victim, must flee to avoid condemnation; long-time prostitute Zarin (Orsolya Tóth) is finally ready to leave the life behind; and middle-aged Fakhri (Arita Shahrzad) has grown weary of her stifling, loveless marriage. The greater struggle of the revolution provides a moving counterpoint to the individual struggles of these characters to achieve solace.
Both the book and the film use elements of magic realism to tell their story. In order to be free of her brother and reinvent herself as a revolutionary, Munis either fakes her own suicide or actually commits suicide and comes back to life; it's unclear which. While roaming the woods, Faezeh sees a surreal reenactment of her rape. Though the device isn't consistent, it still manages to be effective when used.
It helps that the film is beautifully shot, with careful compositions and a palpable tone and style. Neshat uses a metallic palette throughout, giving the film an appropriately imprisoning feel. The film is also remarkable for its avoidance of graphic imagery, with the exception of a disturbing scene in which Zarin scrubs herself raw in a public bath, but this is more to emphasize her diseased, nearly skeletal body, and needless to say, this lone image has a lingering impact.
In fact, it is Zarin's story that ends up being the most effective, while some of the others seem a bit heavy-handed at times. Fakhri's husband chides, "A woman hitting menopause shouldn't be flirting anymore," while Munis' brother declares, "A woman's body is like a flower. Once it blossoms, it quickly withers away." It's not that these sentiments aren't believable, but pairing them with a sheer lack of sympathetic male characters makes it all seem intentionally exaggerated.
From the film's final disclaimer, it seems that Neshat's primary objective was to focus on the revolution, but the way Women Without Men unfolds makes the political aspect of the story more of a backdrop than a feature. It is quite poignant, however, to realize that, in the end, our four main characters have been afforded a rebirth of some kind, even if it's through death, while the Iranian people have failed to achieve the one for which they've so bravely fought.