The first names that come to mind when you hear the literary term “magical realism” are South American, the second Bengali, and so on down the line.
But Iranian actress/author Shahrnoush Parsipour took her shot at this blend of harsh reality coped with through fantasy with “Women Without Men,” a look back at the crucial crisis of her country’s recent history — the 1953 British-backed and CIA-plotted coup that overthrew a nascent and fractious Persian democracy and set the stage for a decades of troubles to come.
Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari turned that into a gorgeous, meditative and poetic film in 2009, a tale of four women who live through the crisis, coping and denying, protesting and helplessly caught up in the communist rallies and conservative religious zealotry that became the most potent counter and eventual overthrow of that regime decades later.
Arita Shahrzad is Farrokhlagha, unhappily-married to an army officer, her life shaken up by the return of an old lover (Bijan Daneshmand) who fled during earlier British rule. His return has her dreaming of starting over, buying an orchard and experiencing love in her late 40s.
Munis (Shabnam Toloui) is glued to her radio, increasingly upset by the early British blockade that was designed to bring down the government. She may wear black and be pushing 30 and unmarried, but she would be wholly radicalized if she weren’t under the thumb of her tyrannical fundamentalist brother Amir Khan (Essa Zahir) who is determined that she marry. We meet her as she’s giving serious thought to giving in to despair and contemplating suicide.
Her friend Faezeh (Pegah Ferydoni) is Amir Khan’s kind of woman. She longs to marry him, but listening to Munis’ alarm at the political situation and her personal enslavement is enough to give the devout Faezeh pause.
And most hopeless of all is Zarin (Orsolya Tóth). She is trapped, the most in-demand prostitute at a Tehran brothel. Haunted and emaciated, she despairs of ever escaping, of ever being truly “clean.”
“Women Without Men” follows each down her own path, into the coffee shops where politics and philosophy is bickered over in the middle of a coup.
“Albert Camus was WRONG!”
Radios crackle with alarming news updates, marches lead to rallies and rallies lead to crackdowns. And in voice-over narration, we hear characters’ inner musings and see their fantastical dreams. Musin finally gets to attend a rally.
“I was there not to watch, but to see!”
Image after image in this immaculately-composed picture stands out — misty groves at dusk and gardens of flowers, long walks down stark, empty roads, a death that isn’t really a death — or is it followed by a haunting?
The most chilling moment has to be Zarin’s shamed trip to the communal baths, women and their children unaware of her profession, helpful and supportive. But she would prefer to scrub her skin raw by herself, tormented by her lot in life.
Scenes like that remind us that there’s no way this depiction of pre-lapsarian Iran could have been filmed there. The explosive politics, the unflattering depiction of zealots and the sex and nudity, recreating a more liberal era before the Shah and the Army, before the mullahs ran things, had to be recreated in Casablanca.
For all the navel gazing, dreams and poetic interludes, “Women Without Men” is a film that’s aging well, a work of art that sends the same messages a dozen years after its creation — that whatever strife the men in charge of this troubled land stir up, it is the women who suffer and silently obsess over what the men leave out or take away.
MPA Rating: unrated, violence, sex, nudity
Cast: Orsolya Tóth, Shabnam Toloui, Pegah Ferydoni, Arita Shahrzad
Credits: Scripted and directed by Shirin Neshat, Shoja Azari, based on the novel by Shahrnoush Parsipour. An Indiepix/Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:39