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Review: Women Without Men – Zanan-e bedun-e mardan (2009)

Directed by: Shirin Neshat | 99 minutes | drama | Actors: Navíd Akhavan, Mina Azarian, Bijan Daneshmand, Rahi Daneshmand, Salma Daneshmand, Pegah Ferydoni, Arita Shahrzad, Tahmoures Tehrani, Shabnam Toloui, Orsolya Tóth,

“Women without Men”, which was awarded a silver lion at the 2009 Venice Festival, may be set more than half a century earlier (when the director was not even born), but at the same time it is still a topical film. To understand anything about the current problem in Iran, some prior knowledge is highly desirable. The political situation in today’s Iran has its origins in the events in this film.

1953. The democratically elected government is overthrown by a coup initiated by Great Britain with the help of the United States. Reason: Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh wanted to nationalize the oil industry, but the rich West did not like those plans. After the fall of the government, the shah came back to power, who oppressed the people for years. The four tragic heroines in Shirni Neshat’s adaptation of Shahrmoush Pársipour’s novel of the same name have one thing in common: they want to cut ties with their past for whatever reason. Political developments in the country leave their mark on some of them. As the title suggests, the future of these Iranian women is aimed at a life without men, because that gender previously caused a lot of misery in their earthly existence.

The first woman we meet is Munis, who is glued to the radio to keep abreast of the political situation. She is not thanked for this by her brother, Amir Khan, who likes to see his almost thirty-year-old sister hooked by a man. Faezah does not understand the political interest of her older friend Munis, she sees herself in the role of submissive wife, preferably that of Amir Khan. But unfortunately this already has other wedding plans. The third woman who is introduced knows how to captivate by her mysterious silence from the start: the prostitute Zarin – beautifully portrayed by the Hungarian Orsolya ‘Orsi’ Tóth (who also made such an indelible impression in ‘Delta’) – sees no salvation in her livelihood, and resigned to the rough way men treat her. When one of her customers caresses her and she wants to take in his face, his eyes and mouth are stripped. Very shocked by this, she fled the brothel. In a particularly beautifully shot, but also poignant scene in a bathhouse, she scrubs her bony body until it bleeds. The fourth wife, Fakhri, acts as a kind of mother figure to Faezah and Zarin. Her husband is a big shot in the military, but when she meets a former lover at a party who has just returned from the United States, she realizes that marriage is suffocating her. She wants culture and not a man who claims that there is no time to follow Hollywood stars like Ava Gardner (to which her ex compares her). Fakhri buys an orchard and discovers that Zarin has been hiding there. She lovingly takes care of the skinny young woman, but despite that, she cannot talk.

After a traumatic experience, Faezah also finds out that her plans for the future must undergo a change. Munis ensures that she can go to Fakhri. It would be a shame to reveal much of Munis’ part in the story, but her role outside the orchard walls is significant.

The orchard itself also plays an important role. Caught in beautiful, tranquil shots – Director of Photography Martin Gschlacht has done an excellent job – the garden almost feels like paradise. In terms of atmosphere, the orchard is somewhat reminiscent of the place between heaven and earth that Peter Jackson created in “The Lovely Bones”. But not only the images shot between the misty treetops are worthwhile; almost the entire is visually very attractive. This is not surprising when you know that the director is known for her photography and video installations. “Women without Men” is her first feature, putting herself on the map as a promising filmmaker. The screenplay, which she wrote together with Shoja Azari, could have been improved a bit – for example, the portrayal of the men in this film is rather one-sided and not every storyline comes out well, but this strongly acted, poetic print has nevertheless the heart is in the right place. Recommended!

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