Sunday, July 11, 2010

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

Shirin Neshat is an artist whose career has been built upon photography and installation works, but making a feature film, which she is doing for the first time with Women Without Men, is a very different beast. That's a lesson Neshat appears to have learned to her cost, producing a film which is faultless on a visual level but one sadly lacking in the cohesion and momentum that a full-length narrative requires. It remains a fascinating piece of work, though, and Neshat's undeniable mastery of composition ensures individual sequences have a truly mesmerising quality. Neshat's theme is the plight of women in Iranian society, and her adaptation of Shahrnoush Parsipour's novel follows four very different females as they escape their patriarchal society and withdraw into a self-contained sanctuary. What a shame the director is incapable of bringing these characters to life in a way that would allow us to fully engage with them.

Neshat opens her film with a death, as Munis (Shabnam Toloui) floats through the air having decided to leap from a rooftop to end the misery of being a virtual prisoner under her brother's command. He wants her to marry and live as a good wife, but she's more interested in becoming politically engaged, as the UK and US-backed coup d'état of 1953 takes place in the streets outside. Her best friend Faezeh (Pegah Ferydoni) is a devoutly religious woman secretly in love with Munis' brother, and when she visits the family home to pay her respects, she finds herself being called into the garden by her late friend's voice. She digs Munis up, allowing her body to rise and her spirit to walk away from her grave and into the streets, where she can finally fulfil her political aspirations by joining a group of student protestors.

It is around this point that we realise Women Without Men is not a strictly realistic film, and these magical, ghostly elements allow Neshat and her co-director Shoja Azari to conjure some beautiful images. The film's most vivid sequences occur in the secluded orchard that Faezeh wanders into after being raped, a sanctuary for women who have suffered at the hands of men. This location is shot in a hypnotic and hallucinatory fashion that recalls the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, and I initially wondered whether this orchard was supposed to represent some kind of afterlife. When Faezeh arrives there, she discovers two other women who have escaped the city for the comfort of this isolated spot. Fakhri (Arita Shahrzad) bought the orchard after leaving her domineering military husband, and Zarin (Orsolya Tóth) is an emaciated prostitute who has run away from the brothel she was silently suffering in.

The actresses playing these roles (particularly the enigmatic Tóth) all give convincing performances, but their characters lack dimensions and Neshat doesn't seem sure how to develop them beyond our initial impressions of them. Faezeh lets her hair down and Zarin starts to look a little healthier, but that's about it, and the film as a whole seems lacking in a real sense of purpose. There's a disconnect between the story of the three women at the orchard on one hand and the ghostly wanderings of Munis on the other, with Neshat's climactic dovetailing of these strands failing to gel. As a filmmaker, she is a creator of stunning images, and there are some brilliant moments here. I was particularly struck by a sequence in a bathhouse, when Zarin draws blood as she tries to scrub away the stain of her past life, or the shot of Munis as the sole female face in a crowd of protesting males. However, the true test of a director is the ability to make stunning individual elements fit into a whole, creating a cohesive, satisfying drama. Women Without Men fails that test, but Neshat has the eye and the ambition of a real artist, and she may strike a finer balance in future projects.