Women Without Men
- Directed by Shirin Neshat
- Written by Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari
- Starring Shabnam Toloui, Orsi Toth, Arita Shahrzad
- Classification: 14A
Only once has democracy reigned in the long history of Iran, for a few short years in the early fifties under then-prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh. At the time, democracy had the temerity to nationalize the oil wells, immediately incurring the wrath of its fellow democracies in Britain and the United States. No doubt, Mossadegh possessed enemies inside the country, but they weren't nearly as powerful as those oil-guzzling enemies outside, who conspired to overthrow him, thereby returning Iran to its time-honoured state of repression, first as an autocratic monarchy and now as an equally autocratic theocracy.
Set during the final weeks of that brief interlude, Women Without Men is a useful reminder of who poisoned the well of Iranian democracy, and why. I wish it were also a good picture. Instead, it's an archly poetic, earnestly symbolic treatise trying awfully hard to be an important picture, but not succeeding. The source material is a Persian magic-realism novel, turned by director Shirin Neshat first into a series of video-art installations and then into this feature film. All three - the novel, the video art and the film - are currently banned in Iran, which is a great shame. Alas, in this particular case, it's a greater shame than a movie.
The problem is easy to spot: too much ambition, too little coherence. An expatriate living in New York, Neshat has two large agendas here - to convey the political maelstrom of the time and to capture the parallel plight of Iranian women, tacitly showing how this sad history keeps repeating itself. Although these agendas are obviously interconnected, they're treated in very different styles. The national politics unfold realistically, while the sexual politics are surreal and mystical, and the four principal characters, all female, embody that contrast - two are real and the others heavily symbolic.
Since Munis (Shabnam Toloui) kills herself in the opening frames, then wafts ghost-like through the unfolding protests on the street, she can safely be consigned to the symbolist camp. So can Zarin (Orsi Toth), a young prostitute whose bruised body is a road map of pain and suffering. Each woman is abused by men, the first by her fundamentalist brother, the second by anyone with the brothel's price of admission. And each is an ethereal presence surrounded by water imagery, with its double meaning - the baths that cleanse and the lakes that drown.
The remaining two hew to the realist part of the spectrum. Faezeh begins as a passive figure happily enslaved by social convention, but gradually grows politicized. Fakhri (Arita Shahrzad), the middle-aged and upper-class wife of an officer in the Shah's army, separates from her husband (and, yes, all he symbolizes) to retreat out of Tehran into the country. There, her farmhouse and its surrounding orchard soon blossom into another transparent metaphor, an Edenic sanctuary where the women gather free from men and their polluting desires. Or, at least, briefly free. Soon, Eden is also invaded by the competing hordes from the city - artists, intellectuals, soldiers, foreigners - and "everything repeats itself." Point made, I suppose.
Although the entire film is beautifully framed and shot, especially the surreal sequences, precious little coheres into anything resembling a compelling narrative. That's unfortunate, because this juncture in the Iranian saga is compelling indeed - it was a missed chance, a false spring that receded into a winter that endures today, with the villains and victims in different roles but in the same supply. Such a crucial moment deserves a clear focus, yet the lens here is fogged with dubious aesthetics and pseudo-poetry - Neshat has removed one veil only to replace it with another.