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With: Pegah Ferydoni, Arita Shahrzad, Shabnam Tolouei, Orsolya Tóth, Bijan Daneshmand, Navíd Akhavan, Mina Azarian, Tahmoures Tehrani, Essa Zahir
Written by: Shirin Neshat, Shoja Azari, based on a novel by Shahrnoush Parsipour
Directed by: Shirin Neshat
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Persian, with English subtitles
Running Time: 99
Date: 09/09/2009

Women Without Men (2010)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Female Troubles

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I came across the name Shirin Neshat just a few weeks ago when I reviewed the long-awaited new DVD of Marzieh Meshkini's The Day I Became a Woman (2001). Neshat, who is a photographer and a visual artist in addition to a filmmaker, contributed liner notes for the new release. Now her feature debut, Women Without Men, comes to American theaters. The Day I Became a Woman was a great film, but Women Without Men is significantly less so. While Meshkini turned in a compact, simple, direct and, beautiful film, Neshat seems more interested in making a statement and wrapping it in heavy melodrama.

Women Without Men focuses on four women in 1953 Iran. It's 1953, and a CIA-backed coup d'état is just about to take down the democratically elected government, led by Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, and replace it with the Shah. One woman is a frighteningly skinny prostitute, Zarin (Orsolya Tóth), who suddenly loses the ability to see men's faces. She flees the brothel, and stops in a bathhouse to scrub furiously at her skin. Munis (Shabnam Tolouei) is nearly 30 and unmarried (horrors!), spending her days glued to the radio news. She lives with her brother who is perpetually angry with her and tries to set her up with potential husbands. Neshat begins the film with the image of Munis hurling herself off a rooftop. The brother discovers the body and, disgraced, buries it in his garden.

Munis' friend Faezeh (Pegah Ferydoni) secretly loves the brother. She receives a magic pouch that she is to bury in the garden, but instead hears Munis' voice. She digs and out pops Munis, alive. Munis goes on to find a Communist boyfriend and helps him distribute literature and leaflets in the streets. Finally, the fourth woman is the fifty-ish, wealthy Fakhri (Arita Shahrzad), who is unhappily married to a general. She meets an old flame, an artistic type who has just returned from the West. She is inspired to leave her husband and buy an orchard, where she hopes to live in peace. Both Zarin and Faezeh wind up living there too. Everything culminates at a big party, though Munis does not really fit into this final picture.

The film is based on a 1990 magical realist novel by Shahrnush Parsipur (who appears in one scene as the brothel madam), and so Neshat allows herself some occasional magical realist touches, such as Munis returning from the grave. Unfortunately, she doesn't really balance the rest of the film to fit. Some scenes play out realistically, and some play out with high melodrama. Often, it's hard to tell if the scene is "really happening," or if someone is dreaming, etc. Clearly Neshat wants the real sexual politics and the social unrest of the time to play a major role, but once again, this clashes with the more whimsical touches. If the basic message is "men are horrible to women," it comes across too broadly and unevenly, and far less effectively than in The Day I Became a Woman.

However, Neshat is also a photographer, and there are many, many scenes or shots in Women Without Men that are memorably striking, including the bathhouse sequence, and some of the scenes at the orchard. Apparently the film -- co-written by Neshat's husband Shoja Azari -- started its life as a video installation, and it makes sense that way. It works in fits and starts; a viewer can drop in and catch a powerful, poignant moment or image at just about any time. But a paying customer in a movie theater is going to have a much harder time making a cohesive cinema experience of it.

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