Telling the story of four very different women living in the tumult of 1953 Tehran, Women without Men, is a visually exquisite and poetic exploration of gender issues that are still prevalent today in Iran, as well as many parts of the world. Adapted from Shahrnush Parsipur’s novel of the same title, and directed by Iranian-born filmmaker and artist Shirin Neshat (in collaboration with Shoja Azari) this 2010 film is a deeply expressive and haunting representation of female perseverance.
Leading up to the American-backed coup that ejected Iran’s first democratically elected leader and reinstated the Shah, four women struggle to find peace, meaning, happiness and purpose in their world. Munis (Shabnam Tolouei) is a politically-conscious independent thinker who wishes to be free from her older brother’s constant berating and attempts to marry her off. Her close friend Faezeh (Pegah Ferydoni) does not share her progressive attitude and longs to marry Munis’s pious and upright brother. Fakhri (Arita Shahrzad) is a middle-aged housewife of a prominent general who enjoys an affluent lifestyle, but is forced to reexamine her unhappy marriage when a former lover reemerges. And Zarin (Orsi Tóth) is a distraught, lonely and sickly young prostitute seeking physical and spiritual solace. These women find refuge, rectitude, fortitude and solidarity in each other despite the unkind manifestations of the outside world.
Shot in Morocco with an almost entirely Iranian-born cast and crew, the assembly of Women without Men must have been a daunting task for Neshat. Casting for her first dramatic feature took over a year, as they had to find Iranian-born actors throughout Europe that spoke Farsi without an accent. The exception was Hungarian actress Orsi Tóth, who had no lines in the film, but delivered a thoughtful, moving and reflective performance nonetheless. Shabnam Tolouei is also riveting as Munis. The actress, playwright and theater director was born in Iran, but moved to Paris because religious persecution prohibited her from working in her own country.
Director Shirin Neshat has long explored gender issues in the Islamic world through her art and photography, but she does more than that with this impressive debut feature. Not only is the film visually moving, thanks in large part to the stunning cinematography from Martin Gschlacht, but it features stirring symbolism and a uniquely beautiful story about female friendship and amity. It is a story so rarely told—women of different ages, of different social circles and coming from varying circumstances, building an affinity through understanding, compassion and healing.
Women without Men is such a fitting title for this film, because it is an exhibition not only of the resolve of women under various restrictions, but especially of female camaraderie.
Women Without Men is now available on DVD from IndiePix Films.