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Tahmineh Milani's "Two Women"

August 8, 2000
The Iranian

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 twists.

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 women, Fereshteh.

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 future.

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 friends.

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 her prison.

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.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Jasmin Darznik

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