Women Without Men (Zanan-e bedun-e mardan)

Iran (2009) Dirs. Shirin Neshat

In 1953, the US and UK orchestrated a coup d’état which saw the overthrowing of the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and his government to restore power to the Shah. The fate of the lives of four women – Fakhri (Arita Shahrzad), Faezeh (Pegah Ferydoni), Munis (Shabnam Tolouei) and Zarin (Orsolya Tóth) – is told against the backdrop of this turbulent period in Iranian history.

Based on the novel by Shahrnush Parsipur, this film is the first dramatic feature from exiled Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, famous for her photography depicting gender issue within Islam. Since Neshat left Iran in 1979 and has been banned from returning since 1996, filming was done in Morocco. Parsipur’s original novel was also banned in Iran for its savage critique on the treatment of Iranian women. It is this theme which dominates the film although the political aspect is still prominent.

We first meet Munis jumping slow motion off the roof of a building before switching to an earlier period before impact where she argues with her devout and bullying brother Amir Khan (Essa Zahir) who has arranged a suitor to visit her with the prospect of marriage and threatens to break Munis’s legs if she avoids the meeting. While protests take place in the street supporting Mosaddegh, Munis’s shy friend Faezeh arrives. She is devout and is secretly in love with Amir Khan who is about to marry someone else. Amir Khan once again bullies Munis, leading to the suicide attempt from earlier. Zarin is a prostitute who suffers from anorexia yet is popular with the punters at the brothel run by Madame Pari (played by author Parsipur). Zarin takes everyone and everything with an eerie silence until a freak vision forces her to run away. Finally Fakhri is the wife of General Sadri (Tahmoures Tehrani) who bickers with her husband over an ex-flame leading to Fakhri walking out on her husband. She retreats to her old country villa which has been uninhabited for many years despite the presence of her loyal gardener (Ahmad Hamed). Whilst inspecting the huge garden which back onto a forest, Fakhri finds Zarin floating in the river and takes her in, nursing her to recovery. Later a distraught Faezeh, in hiding after being raped by two men, also wanders into the garden and is taken in by Fakhri.

For western viewers of this film the treatment of the women will be difficult to watch without getting angry even if it is fictionalised, although such behaviour exists in our part of the world too. It should be worth noting that not all of the men in the film are such pigs so there is no need to vilify the entire male population of Iran. This isn’t even restricted to married couples as we see with Amir Khan’s tyrannical abuse of his own sister. No wonder she jumped! The storyline with Munis takes on a rather fantastic twist which while pertinent I’ve not mentioned for spoiler reasons but it ties win with the political struggles of the government supporters featured in the film. The oppression of democracy in Iran (as such as it was then) runs parallel to that of the liberties women are denied. The film ends with a party at the country villa but ends with military police raid, acting as a metaphorical final hurrah for freedom of the country as the Shah returns to power.

There is a lot going on in the film and that is part of its problem. The real life situation of the political upheaval may provide the film with some kind of “legit” cachet to stop it from appearing like a pro-feminist rant, but by the same token it seems a little incongruous interspersed with the personal life changing struggles of the women. All three of the featured women deserved greater exposition and development of their stories than what they got. Zarin’s tale is one that would have benefited from greater exploration and similarly the way the trio of Zarin, Fahkri and Faezeh bonded and helped each other, a facet which was glossed over while the politics dominated the screen. A case of trying to cover too much ground within too small a time frame.

On the plus side, the film is beautifully shot and presented, no surprise as director Neshat is a photographer, visually holding up against any film of greater budget and production values. The female leads are to be commended for their compelling performances, the most not worthy would be Hungarian Orsolya Tóth, who literally gives her all in her role as Zarin, despite not saying a single word throughout the film. The scene in the public bath when she rubs her malnourished body raw with the soap is particularly powerful stuff.

Women Without Men is a well meaning and earnest drama with an important message to impart and discuss. While it does the former admirably, the jury is still out on the latter. But as a visually impressive piece of World Cinema discerning film fans should get something from this.