http://youtu.be/0CGxQlcrlYw - trailer
Renowned Iranian, but New York based, visual artist Shirin Neshat has made her feature debut with this adaptation of Shahrnush Parsipur's 1990 magic realist novel Women Without Men. This impressive, visually rich film transports the viewer back to the Iran of the 1953 CIA backed coup d'etat, during which the lives and fates of four women become intertwined. Having not read the source novel it's difficult for me to say how successful it is as an adaptation, but taken on its own merits Neshat's film is a thoughtful, complex and lyrical look at the internal and external pressures faced by women living under the harsh conditions of an oppressive regime and strict religious dogmas.
Neshat's controlled, painterly direction allows the stories of the four lead characters to take centre stage, keeping the chaotic events of the coup d'etat largely in the background. With the beautiful environment of a rural orchard estate offering sanctuary, peace and spiritual nourishment to the women all seeking respite from a dour collection of male family members, prostitute using hypocrites and arrogant husbands, Women Without Men becomes rich in metaphor, emotional engagement and political viewpoints. The ghost of Munis (Shabnam Toloui), driven to commit suicide by the social and religious constraints under which she lives, takes to wandering the streets of Tehran, bearing witness to the political upheaval around her in the film's richest magic realist strain. Prostitute Zarin, heartwrenchingly played by Orsolya Toth, makes her way to the rural sanctuary and is found Ophelia like in the orchard's pond, a physical and mental wreck, damaged by the faceless (literally at one point) customers that abuse her on a daily basis. The metaphors relating to the voiceless, enslaved and emotionally malnourished leads, and the striking imagery that compounds their past and present lives, continues throughout this quietly provocative film. Neshat's adaptation is a contemplative experience, oblique in places and open to interpretation on many levels, and requires full engagement with the often poetic individual vignettes and scenarios to form an appreciation of the film as a whole.
Whilst being a beautifully realised period piece dealing with specific historical situations, Women Without Men also resonates on a wider scale with the political, social, cultural and religious oppression that continues to blight the citizens of many countries to this day. Neshat, with her years of experience as a visual artist and backed with impressive performances from her cast, has adroitly made the transition to director in this studied, arthouse exploration of female emancipation from a brutal, narrow minded Patriarchy.