Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Women Without Men
Shirin Neshat, director & script w/creative collaboration by Shoja Azari
Featuring: Pegah Ferydoni (Faezeh), Arita Shahrzad (Fakhri), Shabnam Toloui (Munis), Orsolya Toth (Zarin), Essa Zahir (Amir Khan)
Shirin Neshat, an Iranian woman who has been living in the US and Europe for decades, has crafted an exceptional film: part mysticism, part proto-feminism, part historical revisionism, part romanticism–and all rendered gorgeously, in the accustomed style of this fine pictorial artist.
The film concentrates on the lives of four women living in Tehran in the fateful summer of 1953, when Mohammad Mossadeq, a democratically elected Arab nationalist, had his regime deposed by the CIA. Munis, one of the women, commits suicide rather than live under the control of her ultra conventional brother, Amir Khan; mystically, she is reborn as a Communist fighting for Mossadeq and Iranian independence. Another, Zarin, nearly dies as a prostitute, until she is taken in by Fakhri, a wealthy woman who has left her husband, a high ranking military official. Fakhri, who has created a refuge in the gorgeous terrain outside of the city, also rescues Faezeh, a friend of Munis, from the harsh realities of Tehran.
Based on a magical realist novel by Shahrnush Parsipur, Women without Men mixes the poetic with the literal in a seamless style. Overwhelmingly beautiful images abound. Scenes in the grounds of Farrokh’s estate have a ravishing dream-like quality: are the characters living or in another world?
Neshat’s sophisticated visuals, developed over the past twenty years as an award-winning photographer and video installation artist, are on display throughout the film. Fakhri’s orchard has a pictorial quality reminiscent of pre-Raphaelite paintings combined with the sumptuousness of classic Persian art. Colours are astonishingly vivid—dark greens, dusky browns, translucent blues. In one of many memorable scenes, Fakhri finds Zarin nestled among the weeds in a pool that evokes emotions one would have towards an Eastern Ophelia in repose.
The tale is melodramatic and political. Munis is trapped in a destructive relationship with Amir, her brother, who insists on getting her married and respectable: he couldn’t care less about her ideas or feelings. Faezeh is Munis’ best friend but she also harbours an reciprocated desire for Amir, who is about to be married to someone else. Fakhri married a conventional military man when Abbas, the man she desired left for life in the West. His return to Tehran sparks Fakhri’s unofficial divorce from conventional society—and her husband—and the desire to create her gorgeous orchard and mansion. Zafir, a prostitute since childhood flees her brothel to either end her life or find a new one. Luckily, she meets Fakhri.
Though each woman is rendered as a true character, it’s hard to resist applying symbols to their existences. Fakhir, upper-class, a fine singer and poet who is given few opportunities to show her talents, is modern Iran of the ‘50s, ready to embrace the Shah and the US—although with reservations. Munis is the rebel, the idealist: a Communist in 1953, she would be a radical orthodox Islamist by 1979. Zafir is the tragic body of Iran, used and abused by centuries of conquerors. And Faezeh is the middle path that Iran has never taken—a woman who ultimately rejects the hypocritical orthodoxy of Amir but won’t accept the fates of Munis, Zafir or Fakhir.
Let’s hope that the middle path—some version of democracy and human rights—will flourish in Iran soon. And that Neshat can make another great film, this time in homeland.