The Patience Stone (Syngué sabour, pierre de patience)

Afghanistan (2012) Dir. Atiq Rahimi

Persian folklore tells of a magic black stone called Syng-e-saboor (the Patience Stone), which those who are suffering great misery, pain or the burden of secrets can confide in. It is said the stone absorbs everything without discrimination until it finally explodes, instantly freeing the person from their troubles.

This fable is the basis of the novel of the same name by Atiq Rahimi who, in collaboration with French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, has adapted it for the big screen.  Set during a violent conflict in an unnamed Middle East location it tells the story of a woman (Golshifteh Farahani) who spends her days unwaveringly caring for her much older comatose husband (Hamid Djavadan), who was paralysed by a bullet lodged in his neck. With barely any money and two children to look after as well, the woman struggles to the family unit together while chaos ensues around them. During this period the woman confides everything to her vegetated husband from her fears and concerns to finally revealing deep dark personal secrets, the husband assuming the role of the Patience Stone.

It reads as a fairly basic and potentially dreary plotline which should be more suited to the stage since it is essentially a string of monologues for the woman. However the opposite is true – there is plenty going on away from the makeshift bedside confessional to give the woman (who is never named) ammo for her one sided dialogue. The constant explosions, gun fire and other dangers of war are constantly hanging over their heads and when attacks do take place, the woman takes her kids into a nearby shelter, although hubby of course has to stay put.

When a trio of armed soldiers break into the house while the family are hidden away and steal the husband’s watch and wedding ring, the woman hunts down her ex-prostitute aunt (Hassina Burgan) who is living a much more prosperous life, and leaves her kids there while she returns on a daily basis to tend to her husband. In a unique juxtaposition, the aunt shares her professional experiences in telling her niece how to handle men and other situations which are put into practice whenever she returns home to her husband with both good and bad results.

One thing that stands out about this film is that despite being an Afghan production Rahimi’s direction is very western in its boldness and depictions of certain scenes which you usually won’t find in other Middle Eastern films. This might be because, like his previous works, is French co-production which might be an influence but it certainly adds an extra dimension to what is quite a stark presentation.

Films of this nature from this part of the world aren’t the greatest adverts for Islam and their appalling oppressive treatment of women and this film isn’t any different. However rather than making martyrs out of the female cast it shows them for the true warriors they are. If you look at what they have to put up with both physically, mentally and through the teachings of their faith it is a wonder the suicide rate among women isn’t higher, so to tough this out and survive on a daily basis takes real strength.

We learn the husband was the domineering and brutish type which makes the loyalty of the woman baffling to our western eyes, but now that he is effectively under her mercy the balance of power has shifted. But she doesn’t take advantage in a cruel way, although the home truths start to come out over time – such as how she objected to the fact her husband was actually away on the battlefield when they got married! A distraction in the form of a stuttering young soldier (Massi Mrowat) who thinks the woman is prostitute and buys his first time with her (all five seconds of it!) provides an odd sense of liberation and a confidence booster for the woman which exposes the men as the true cowards of the piece, hiding behind their guns and their religion.

It is during the scenes with the smitten soldier and the comparative luxury of the aunt’s abode where the western film making style is at its most prominent. Maybe not explicit the love making skits are bold for a Middle Eastern film while the scenes at the aunt’s place is full of bright lavish colours, embracing female empowerment by the ditching of the chadri, the wearing of make-up and free talk about matters sexual. This is in stark contrast to the rubble strewn, bare walled hovel purportedly to be a house which reeks of poverty and oppression.

With the driving force of both the story and the narrative being the woman, Rahimi scored a coup when he cast Golshifteh Farahani in the main role, who proves almost from the first moment she appears on screen that she is more than a pretty face. Much like her character Farahani is tasked with the huge burden of carrying the emotional weight of the film through her role and she does so with poise, nuance and great conviction. She manages to convey everything that the woman feels through the merest gesture or facial expression and charts her change in attitude and confidence subtly, making her grow before our eyes but without us realising it.

But as much as this is Farahani’s film her co-star Hamid Djavadan has the hardest job remaining immobile for the whole film, at first with his eyes open but never blinking then eyes closed, while being washed, tended to, fed via a makeshift drip feed and probed by soldiers without responding. A formidable challenge which Djavadan meets and conquers through sheer will and aplomb.

The Patience Stone offers a new take on a familiar theme about the plight of oppressed women in the Middle East, and should be applauded its more positive portrayal – if a tragic one – while opening some eyes and hopefully a few minds too.