Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Review: Women Without Men

The destinies of Iran and its women are inseparable; this is a major theme of Shirin Neshat's debut feature Women Without Men. Set against the unrest of the Anglo-American coup to remove democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and install the shah, the film zooms in on four women suffering various kinds of oppression: Zarin, a depressed prostitute, who scrubs herself bloody at a public bath in an effort to purge the johns from her body; Munis, a politically aware young woman who voraciously devours news of the demonstrations outside, but is kept from leaving the house by Amir Khan, her religiously zealous brother; her best friend Faezeh, who lusts after Amir Khan from beneath her hejab, much to Munis' bewilderment; and Farrokhlagha, a general's wife who's finding herself suffocated by the pro-shah Tehran aristocracy she and her husband exist in.
 Though the whole ensemble does outstanding work, the one performance that sticks out is Pegah Ferydoni as sweet, unassuming Faezeh. She provides a quiet emotional center for the film. While everyone else is going kind of crazy, she becomes saner and grows quite a bit.
The film follows a kind of dream logic, fueled by the complex history of Iran and the rhythm of Persian poetry. Iranian scholar Hamid Dabashi said that if jazz is the rhythm of American culture, then Persian poetry is that of Iranian culture. This kind of poetic focus brings a unique structure to the scenes; each sequence is a whole statement, while still helping to stitch the tapestry of the film entire. This is also no doubt influenced by Neshat's background as video artist. 
In order to get some fresh air away from the tumult of Tehran, Farrokhlagha buys an Edenesque old orchard in the country, to which Zarin and Faezeh are both inexplicably drawn. For a while they live in blissful harmony, but there is a foreboding calm-before-the-storm undercurrent which lets us know that they cannot escape the changes happening in their nation for long.

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