Women Without Men
2010, NR, 99 min. Directed by Shirin Neshat. Starring Pegah Ferydoni, Arita Sjajrzad, Shabnam Tolouei, Orsi Toth.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 8, 2010
Set in Iran during the tumultuous time of August 1953, when a British- and American-backed coup ousted the democratically elected government of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh and installed the shah as the new ruler, Women Without Men offers a glimpse of women’s lives in that country prior to the uproar of the last half-century. Based on a magical realist novel by Shahrmoush Parsipour, the film depicts the lives of four women of different backgrounds and social classes. Director Neshat, an acclaimed photographer and video artist, adapted the story with her husband, Shoja Azari, but every frame of the film reflects her compositional acuity and visual sensibility. Born in Iran, Neshat emigrated to the U.S. as a teenager, and Women Without Men was filmed in Casablanca, Morocco, using that location as a stand-in for Tehran. Though the film is visually compelling, its story is slight and the characters seem more like figurative representations than flesh-and-blood subjects. Munis (Tolouei) is an unmarried 30-year-old woman who lives with her brother, who pressures her to marry. Instead, she remains glued to the radio, listening to current events until she finds a dramatic release from her situation. Her young friend Faezeh (Ferydoni) is a virgin who has trouble finding her own path in the world. Zarin (Toth) is a prostitute who impulsively flees her brothel and is taken in, near-dead, by Farrokhlagha (Sjajrzad), a fiftyish woman who has left her husband (a general who disdains her for being menopausal) and bought her own estate in the country. Her home becomes a way station for these women, while Munis’ spirit remains in the city, becoming part and parcel of the agitation in the streets. The cinematography by Martin Gschlacht is rich with deep visual halftones that somewhat replicate the look of photography and leave behind striking images for us to ruminate over. However, too much is left to the vagaries of magical realism as we watch scene after scene of women walking, hovering, and restraining their self-expression. The images are vivid, their meanings much less so.