Tahmineh Milani's "Two Women"
August 8, 2000
Tahmineh Milani's "Two Women" is the most unsparing, unambiguous
feminist film to emerge from Iran since the Islamic Revolution. Having
reputedly battled the censors for months, the film was a sensation on its
1999 Iranian premiere, earning Milani the award for best screenplay at
Iran's Fajr Film Festival last spring.
With its recent U.S. release, "Two Women" is certain to confound
audiences here with the same apparent paradox that Samira Makhmalbaf's
"The Apple" presented last year: As a matter of official policy
and cultural practice, Iran today is a country where women suffer widespread
oppression. It is also a country where women themselves -- through film
and other means -- are fixing that oppression with an unflinching stare.
Far from the poignant childhood allegories of Majid Majidi's films or
the philosophically-minded studies of Abbas Kiarostami, Milani does not
traffic here in subtleties. "Two Women" suffers from numerous
melodramatic excesses: a ridiculously bombastic soundtrack, male characters
who verge drastically close to caricature, and stunningly improbable plot
But while "Two Women" is not without its artistic merits,
its significance rests most assuredly on the political urgency of its themes
and the cultural quagmire in which it was produced. Given its context,
the film's very blatancy arguably represents its greatest achievement.
"Two Women" tells the story of Roya (Marila Zarei) and Fereshteh
(Niki Karimi), who meet as university students on the eve of the Islamic
Revolution in Iran, lose contact for several years, and are reunited in
the present time. Roya has become a successful architect and has married
an amiable, supportive man while Fereshteh's life has taken very different
turns. In a series of flashbacks, the film chronicles the women's meeting
and evolving friendship, then focuses singly on the life of one of the
As young women, Roya is stunned by the seemingly ceaseless range of
Fereshteh's talents. Fereshteh excels in her studies, speaks English, can
drive a car. The more affluent Roya soon learns that her friend, whose
family background is markedly more modest and conservative than Roya's,
is putting herself through school by tutoring other classmates. Bold, intelligent,
resourceful, and witty, Fereshteh seems poised on the brink of a brilliant
Yet Fereshteh is not only preternaturally gifted; she is also extremely
beautiful. Pursued by countless suitors, she good-naturedly brushes them
off in favor of completing her education and pursuing a career. All her
plans are, however, derailed by the appearance of a swarthy young man who
stalks Fereshteh with a knife and vial of acid, all the while declaring
his love in crazed murmurs.
A horrid series of events forces Fereshteh from the university to her
small hometown just as revolutionary foment closes Tehran University indefinitely.
Back at home, Fereshteh is eventually goaded into marriage with subtle
manipulations, false promises, and downright coercions.
Though her husband's tyranny is undeniably exaggerated, it is neither
unrecognizable nor implausible. He subjects Fereshteh to a steady regimen
of emotional abuse that includes accusing her of harboring a dark sexual
past and of lacking true maternal instincts. Clearly smarting from the
fact that he is her intellectual inferior, he mocks Fereshteh's intelligence,
dismissing her desire to study and work as mere cravings for loose living.
He forbids her to use the telephone, read books, leave the house, have
While the temptation, particularly of Western reviewers, has been to
view "Two Women" as an emblematic tale of female suffering in
Iran, Fereshteh is never exactly meant to represent the women of her society,
and it precisely this detail that lends the film its greatest dramatic
tension. "Two Women" would have been a far less compelling tale
had its heroine been in some measure less extraordinary, more typical.
A point of great irony and poignancy in the film is that Fereshteh acts
as an acute observer of her own mental deterioration. She does not only
suffer; she recognizes and articulates her experience with uncommon acuity.
Milani's challenge -- and one she largely meets -- is to convincingly render
the destruction of a singularly powerful woman by conventional forces.
Fereshteh attempts repeatedly to leave her husband, only to be frustrated
by the wide network of forces that ensure her subjection. Several times
she flees to her parents' house only to encounter weak assurances that
time will unravel her problems. When Fereshteh seeks redress at the law
courts, she is dismissed with the blunt response that such abuses as her
husband's do no constitute sufficient grounds for divorce.
When her husband discovers she has been secretly reading books on child
psychology, her despair at last edges into rage. Fereshteh, by this point
haggard and dejected, is enlivened by a determination to raise her sons
in a more progressive fashion than either she or her husband were raised.
Mocking his attempts to prohibit her from reading, she drags out her hoard
of books from their hiding place in the courtyard and dumps them before
her husband's feet. She then rushes defiantly from the house that has been
Yet her flight is aborted. Milani teases us with the possibility of
Fereshteh staking out life on her own terms in what would have been the
harshest of circumstances, then swiftly averts this more engaging crisis
in favor of a improbable showdown between Fereshteh's husband and stalker.
With this sensational resolution Milani avoids the darkest questions prompted
by the film.
Still, the final moments of the film are richly poignant. "I feel
like a free bird without any wings," cries Fereshteh. It is as if
she has finally woken from a long nightmare. Fereshteh frantically contemplates
the responsibilities -- and liberties-represented by her husband's death.
While she can never recover the years lost to her, we recognize that through
all her suffering, the resourceful, passionate spirit that charmed us in
the film's first sequences has survived.