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Movie Review

Women Without Men

Women seek freedom in mystical plot of Iran

Shabnam Tolouei plays one of four women from different social strata who seek out a healing zone in “Women Without Men.’’ Shabnam Tolouei plays one of four women from different social strata who seek out a healing zone in “Women Without Men.’’ (Indiepix Films)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / June 30, 2010

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‘Women Without Men’’ takes place in 1953, during the civic unrest surrounding the CIA-backed overthrow of Iran’s prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. Really, though, that’s a dodge. Shirin Neshat’s film, a magical-realist cry from the heart, is as up-to-date as last year’s pro-democracy protests. “All we wanted was to find a new form, a new way,’’ muses one of the characters on the soundtrack. “Everything repeats itself over time.’’

That the woman saying this is either dead or on her way there — it depends on how you read Neshat’s oblique imagery — is a mark of the profound frustration and sorrow that moves this story forward. “Women Without Men’’ is adapted from a novel by the feminist writer Shahrnush Parsipur; the book has been banned in Iran since the 1990s, and you can readily understand why. It’s a celebration of women’s resilience in the face of absolute patriarchy, an oppression that’s felt on personal, cultural, and political levels.

The film moves in overlapping circles around four women of radically different social strata and available freedoms. Fakhri (Arita Shahrzad) is an elegant upper-class matron whose husband (Tahmoures Tehrani), a general backing the shah, reviles her for being no longer sexually desirable; she leaves him and buys an orchard out in the country that becomes the story’s mystical center, a surreal healing zone for women whose spirits have been crushed.

Already taking refuge there when Fakhri arrives is Zarin (Orsolya Tóth), a skeletal prostitute who has fled Tehran after a mental breakdown. Zarin is the most extreme victim in the movie and its most naked metaphor; a sequence in a public bath where she rubs her skin bloody trying to cleanse the taint of men is shocking for both its violence and casual nudity. (The film is a European coproduction that was, for obvious reasons, shot in Morocco rather than Iran.)

Between these heroines high and low is Munis (Shabnam Tolouei), a fiercely intelligent woman aching to take part in the street protests but forbidden to leave the house by her brother (Essa Zahir). She haunts “Women Without Men’’ like a guilty conscience, willing herself into political actions available to few Iranian women in 1953. Her meek friend Faezeh (Pegah Ferydoni) fears Munis’s boldness until her own crisis propels her toward the orchard and a growing awareness of the forces arrayed against her.

The director is a celebrated Iranian photographer making her debut feature, and “Women Without Men’’ features crystalline shot compositions that seem to rise out of an alternately troubled and serene dreamscape. At times the beauty of the visuals work against the defiant unprettiness of the message, though, and you may sense that Neshat prefers art-film looseness because her skills with narrative have yet to catch up. The movie entwines historical reenactment and resonant emotional symbolism but ultimately fails to come together with the devastating punch the filmmaker and her cast are building toward.

The best moments still have rough power and an adamant belief that sisterhood is a critical element of women’s freedom and that women’s freedom is a critical element of human freedom. The film is dedicated to those who have died in a century of struggle for democracy in Iran; “Women Without Men’’ looks forward with both anger and hope.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

WOMEN WITHOUT MEN

Directed by: Shirin Neshat

Written by: Neshat, Shoja Azari, and Steven Henry Madoff, based on a novel by Shahrnush Parsipur

Starring: Arita Shahrzad, Shabnam Tolouei, Pegah Ferydoni, Orsolya Tóth

At: Museum of Fine Arts, today, various dates through July 8

Running time: 95 minutes

Unrated (as PG-13: brief nudity, mild violence)

In Persian, with subtitles

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