Atiq Rahimi's The Patience Stone has been adapted from the director's own award-winning novel, but perhaps Rahimi would have been better advised to bring his story to life on the stage. The drama is confined to a couple of interior locations, peopled by a handful of characters, and much of the dialogue is spoken in long, unbroken monologues. Given the premise of the story, the static nature of The Patience Stone is perhaps to be expected, but it does prove to be a stumbling block that the film can't entirely negotiate. A story of this nature may flows beautifully on the page, or benefit from the intimacy of a theatre, but on screen it would require an enormous amount of subtlety and skill to let such a tale. The Patience Stone occasionally falters at these hurdles, but in between those missteps there are moments of real emotional force.
The allegorical nature of The Patience Stone is evident from the lack of clear information we are given about the characters and their situation. The lead character isn't given a name, and she is credited only as The Woman. Played by Golshifteh Farahani, she is living in an unnamed village that apparently exists on the frontlines of some conflict, with her husband (Hamid Djavadan) and two young children. Her husband, however, is barely there. Having been wounded in battle, he lies immobile and uncommunicative in their home, with eyes open but for all appearances dead to the world. Her relatives have fled, and she has to tend to her husband, raise their children, and endure the frequent bombings and raids alone.
Of course, in some respects, the woman has always been alone. The Patience Stone makes it clear that she has rarely been treated with any kind of affection by her husband in the ten years that they have been together. When she married him at the age of 17, he wasn't even present at the wedding, and a flashback shows her disconsolately sitting next to a photograph of her husband and his dagger resting on a chair, while he was away fighting some war. Now, with him unable to respond, the power dynamic in their relationship has suddenly shifted, and she begins to talk to her husband in a way that she has never been able to before. Her aunt (Hassina Burgan, whose wry presence is very welcome), who works in the city as a prostitute, tells her a tale from folklore, about a small rock called a patience stone. If you tell all of your troubles to this rock, it will absorb everything you say and then shatter, delivering you of the troubles that are causing such anguish. For this woman, her husband is now a patience stone.
With a film that is essentially one long monologue, Rahimi has to work hard to prevent monotony from setting in. He uses the camera elegantly and finds effective compositions around Farahani and Djavadan, which is no mean feat, given that one of them is comatose throughout. Legendary screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière has helped Rahimi bring his story to the screen, and perhaps he is responsible for the occasional flashback scenes, which dramatise the events Farahani is recounting and help to open up a film that sometimes feels repetitive (long monologues followed by shots of the woman walking to-and-fro across the village). Further dramatic turns are provided by the male characters who come into her home; an older soldier (Hatim Seddiki) who chastises her for living an impure life, and a younger recruit who fall in love with her. The young man has a debilitating stutter ("He should fuck with his tongue and talk with his cock," the woman's aunt suggests) but his timidity allows her to control their relationship, and draw from him a tenderness that is vanishingly rare from the men in her life.
One reason why The Patience Stone works as well as it does is the central performance from Golshifteh Farahani. The film is essentially a one-woman show, with Farahani being asked to carry every scene, but the actress responds with a riveting display that matches the exceptional work we saw from her in Asghar Farhadi's About Elly. What's most impressive about the performance is the way she gradually exposes her character's inner self, as she reveals more secrets to her husband and discovers a voice that has remained hidden for years. The Patience Stone never entirely frees itself from the confines of its premise, but this exploration of a woman's role in Afghan society is a bold and engrossing fable, and one that's blessed with a number of transcendent moments thanks to Farahani's powerfully moving work.