REVIEW: DVD Release: Women Without Men

Film: Women Without Men
Release date: 16th August 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 99 mins
Director: Shirin Neshat
Starring: Pegah Ferydoni, Arita Shahrzad, Shabnam Toulouei, Orsi Tóth
Genre: Drama
Studio: Artificial Eye
Format: DVD
Country: Germany/France/Austria

Women Without Men is the debut feature from ‘visual artist’-turned-director Shirin Neshat, well known for her artistic works exploring gender relations. It is the adaptation of the 1989 novel of the same name by Shahrnush Parsipur, which was banned by the Iranian government in the 1990s for its outspoken depiction of female oppression.

Women Without Men tells the story of four women in 1950s Iran who, for one reason or another, are moved to make a radical change in their lives to throw off the oppression of men, in a society where the domination of one sex by another is a completely normal part of everyday life.

Munis (Shabnam Touloui) lives with her stoically traditional brother Amir Kahn, pressuring her towards an arranged marriage and a conventional life in which she has no interest. Her friend, Faeseh (Pegah Ferydoni) secretly longs to marry Amir Khan, and spends her time plotting against his fiancée. Zarin (Orsi Tóth) is a prostitute in a local brothel. Disgusted with herself, and haunted by shame and the faceless men she must service day after day, she scrubs her skin raw in the local baths and battles with madness. Fakhri (Arita Shahrzad) is a middle-aged, respectable woman who mourns the days of her youth when she would sing and write poetry, activities which her austere, highly decorated military husband ridicules as pointless wastes of time.

These events are set against the 1953 Iranian coup d'état, when the democratically elected government of nationally revered Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh was forcibly overthrown by the United States. We see this conflict most vividly through the eyes of Munis, who – fleeing from the oppression of her brother – joins a guerrilla resistance movement…

Women Without Men is, of course, a feminist story – happily, not particularly preachy or forthright, but mainly a positive study of female independence. The four leads are interesting, deeply drawn women who continue to grow and surprise as the film progresses and their stories intertwine. By contrast, the film’s faults lie largely in the thinly drawn, insubstantial male characters. Essa Zahir as Amir Khan does little more than look stern and unreasonably threaten his wife. Fakhri’s husband serves merely to dismiss her artistic yearnings, and her old flame serves merely to encourage them. Of course, all characters serve a purpose, but it does feel as if Neshat has little interest in her male characters’ motivations outside of their superficial manifestations as shallow, intolerant bullies.

Neshrat has shot Iran with an artist’s eyes; Women Without Men looks absolutely stunning. She finds breathtaking beauty in the stark white lines of the city buildings of Tehran, the ethereal glow of a hidden woodland glade, and the desolate, sweeping brush of the country landscape. Equally, she shoots her actors delicately and intimately, lovingly lit, and again she finds the beauty in the knowing, sorrowful faces.

The film is well paced through the first and second acts, although runs out of steam a little towards the end, as the stories should be building to a climax. Sadly, they peter out and don’t really end up amounting to as much as they should.

It’s an interesting angle to tell this story of women struggling to find their independence as Iran itself struggles against oppression. The politics are fascinating, but are told here in fairly broad strokes, and tend to lose out somewhat to the emotional storylines of the four women. We learn nothing new through Women Without Men that we didn’t already know about the 1953 coup, and it’s a shame because through Munis’ story thread, Neshrat had a real opportunity to explore some of the deeper issues behind the politics the world saw. Instead, we see a well played but familiar story of a new recruit brought into a group of young guerrilla idealists, learning the grim realities of her new existence. There’s nothing wrong with how Neshrat tells this story, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before – plus, it was done so much better in The Baader Meinhoff Complex.

Women Without Men is a tasteful, beautifully shot, well-meaning drama with some excellent performances and strong story set in a fascinating period in Iranian history. It’s let down a little by its tendency to rely on clichés and convenience when it comes to character, but still an extremely enjoyable take on female independence and the intertwining lives of these four women. LOZ

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