The stunning-looking creation of the video artist and photographer Shirin Neshat, “Women Without Men,” her first feature film, is set during August 1953, the moment in Iran when a coup d’etat definitively tipped the balance of power in favor of the Shah.
As that coup was backed by Western interests, tied in with the oil company that would later be known as British Petroleum (and later still — yep — BP), you might think that Neshat’s film would contain overt political protest.
And the movie does have anger, but it’s also a work of poetry. Neshat’s tapestry focuses on four Iranian women, caught in the historical moment.
One is a prostitute (Orsi Toth), a near-slave who flees from her dismal world in an act of freedom or self-destruction. Although she suffers the most awful circumstances in the movie, the other women might also be called near-slaves.
The best off is a middle-aged wife (Arita Shahrzad), but she too is inspired to escape her life and her unloving husband, retreating to an idyllic house in the country, which becomes a draw for some of the other main characters, too.
There’s also a politically alert woman (Shabnam Tolouei) whose brother is a religious fundamentalist of the strictest kind. When he forces her to remain housebound — for her own “protection,” of course — she takes dramatic action.
Her friend (Pegah Ferydoni), a much meeker soul, is secretly in love with the brother. But when she commits the sin of peering into a men-only coffee house, her fate is affected by unforgiving patriarchal attitudes as well.
If history has mostly concluded that the 1953 coup has disastrous consequences, Neshat certainly isn’t painting the previous government as a paradise. The politics here are mainly sexual, a world in which men dominate women, controlling their bodies and their spirits.
While the film could be compared to Jafar Panahi’s “The Circle,” a 2000 film that looks at oppression of women in the current regime, “Women Without Men” takes a less blunt approach. (Given the current headlines about an Iranian woman sentenced to execution by stoning for the crime of adultery, no approach could be too blunt.)
Neshat, whose work includes photographs of women with Persian calligraphy imposed on their bodies, is interested in the lyrical image, but she also indulges in magical realism, including the apparent revival of a character who has been dead and buried.
So the film is full of striking shots — terrible beauty in the midst of ugliness. It’s the kind of powerful work with a lingering, residual ability to haunt.
“Women Without Men” ½
Set during the Iranian coup of 1953, this film does have a political thrust — but it is even more interested in sexual politics, specifically the power men have over women’s bodies and spirits. Director Shirin Neshat brings this to haunting life by creating four women in lyrical, poetic ways that sometimes cross over into magical realism — a haunting approach. In Persian, with English subtitles.
Rated: Not rated; probably R for nudity, violence
Showing: Northwest Film Forum