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With: Fatemah Cheragh Akhtar, Hassan Nabehan, Shabnam Touloui, Azizeh Seddighi, Badr Irouni Nejad
Written by: Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Directed by: Marzieh Meshkini
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Farsi with English subtitles
Running Time: 78
Date: 09/01/2000

The Day I Became a Woman (2001)

4 Stars (out of 4)

What 'Women' Want

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

The great Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, best known for A Moment of Innocence and Gabbeh (both 1996), has done more than create wonderful films. He began something called the Makhmalbaf Film House, in which he teaches young filmmakers the ropes. Among his students: his daughter Samira Makhmalbaf, whose debut at age 19 was the astonishing The Apple (1998), and now his wife Marzieh Meshkini, whose first film, the new The Day I Became a Woman is equally brilliant. It's part of the Shooting Gallery series.

As he did for The Apple, Makhmalbaf himself provided the screenplay for The Day I Became a Woman, but the film succeeds thanks to Meshkini's eye. The film follows three stories about three women at three stages of life, childhood, womanhood, and old age.

The first story looks at a little girl named Havva (Fatemah Cheragh Akhtar) on her ninth birthday, the day on which she is considered a woman and must cover her hair and stop playing with boys. To little Havva, this does not constitute much of a birthday present, and she sets out to have ice cream with her friend, a boy (Hassan Nabehan), as a kind of last fling of childhood.

Meshkini expertly cuts from the relative calm of this first story to a man thundering across a desert plain on a horse looking for Ahoo, the heroine of our second story. Ahoo (Shabnam Touloui) furiously peddles along in a bicycle race along with dozens of other women (who still must have their heads and bodies covered). The man rides alongside Ahoo and berates her for not performing her wifely duties, telling her to stop. She does not. This sequence seems frighteningly dream-like, as more and more male members of Ahoo's family ride out of nowhere on horseback with the same threats. But Meshkini establishes the events as fact by showing other characters discussing them as Ahoo rides by.

The third story, entitled "Houra" after its main character, begins with a smattering of boys with their pushcarts waiting to take tourists' luggage as they get off the plane at the Kish Island airport. One boy (Badr Irouni Nejad) picks up an old lady (Azizeh Seddighi) who demands that they go furniture shopping. Soon, the boy pushes the old lady along followed by a dozen other boys, each pushing a cart loaded with giant cartons. The old lady keeps colored ribbons on her fingers to remember everything she wants to buy, and one ribbon remains... something she forgot.

Meshkini and Makhmalbaf spin these simple, breezy stories with beautiful clarity and near-weightlessness. If there is a message to be found, it's woven into the fabric of the story and not stapled on as an afterthought. These three women do the best they can to be themselves despite the rigid restrictions Iranian society dumps on them. This movie is not a complaint, though. It's a celebration of those small moments of freedom that do come along when you look for them. This is just about the lightest and most agreeable of the umpteen Iranian films I've seen. In fact, the major criticisms I've heard so far say that it's not political enough.

The Day I Became a Woman shows a beautiful, streamlined use of space, making it more sharply etched than something like the Oscar-nominated Children of Heaven (1998). Like Makhmalbaf's Gabbeh, it's less concerned with neo-realism and more interested with the effects of color and space and rhythm. At only 78 minutes, the film represents the ultimate in artistic efficiency.

Don't miss this movie based on a quick dismissal of its supposedly dreary subject matter -- it's far from it. The Day I Became a Woman is a sublime new masterpiece of light and life and soul.

DVD Details: At last, after nearly a decade, Olive Films has released this great Iranian film on DVD in the United States, even if it's not exactly first-class quality (it's not even enhanced for widescreen TVs). Bonuses include a commentary track by Richard Peña (program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center), a trailer, and a photo gallery. It comes with a great liner notes booklet with an essay by Shirin Neshat.

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