Women Without Men Review by Siofra McSherry
Adapted from the magic realist novel by Shahrnush Parsipur, visual artist Shirin Neshat’s first feature film is set in Iran in 1953, when a CIA-backed coup overthrew the democratically elected government, reinstating the Shah. By maintaining an intense focus on four women in personal crisis, Neshat’s camera floats through the turmoil of Tehran without allowing the political revolution to take a central position. Establishing period detail, the fashion, music and culture of the time, was work undertaken by the Iranian filmmakers in the spirit of political activism. To recall a time when the current totalitarian regime did not exist challenges its propaganda, which creates the impression that the status quo is permanent.
Two of the main female characters, a divorcee and a young rape victim, face issues that are very grounded in real life. The other two are distinctly otherworldly. Zarin, a prostitute, is drawn on archetypal lines, mostly silent and seeming to hardly fit into the world at all. Munis, facing forced marriage, commits suicide and is resurrected. Through her death as an individual woman she is freed to act as a cipher for her society and as a political agent. Following her, the camera moves through riots into Communist Party meetings in the back rooms of cafes. The magic realism of the source novel translates into a heavily stylized direction that lets scenes linger often longer than expected. Drained of colour, the cinematography provides striking tableaux, women’s figures often sharply foregrounded and isolated against backdrops of buildings or trees. In exile from Iran since 1996, Neshat was forced to shoot in cinema-friendly Morocco, and this landscape is lovingly rendered.
In the third act the women withdraw to an orchard outside Tehran, an uncanny place, misty and full of strange birdsong. Gardens in Iranian culture have often represented places of spiritual transcendence; in Neshat’s previous work they have been settings for exile. This one provides a refuge for women unable to fit within the city’s patriarchal reality. A metaphorical rather than geographically logical place, it appears magically at the end of a road that is seemingly both endless and traversable in seconds. Many scenes have such an atmosphere of suspension - like still photographs, action appears to be both instantaneous and meditatively slow. Silence fills the sound design, allowing the carefully composed images to take effect without the emotional distraction of a manipulative soundtrack.
Through the exploration of the issues facing women, Women Without Men reveals what Neshat’s collaborator Shoja Azari describes as the core of the struggle within Iranian society; the patriarchal system that stifles individual expression, literally so in a culture that bans women from singing in public. Fakhri, known in her youth for her beautiful voice, sings for her party guests at the film’s climax as the ethereal Zarin slips from silence into death. A few years more and the party, the orchard, or a woman’s voice raised in song would be unimaginable. Political reality reasserts itself finally as the Shah’s soldiers come knocking at the garden gates. At the film’s close, however, we are left with a sense of foreboding that there is much, much worse to come.