By Rachel Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010; WE28
Iranian filmmaker Shirin Neshat's first feature-length film, "Women Without Men," starts with the main character jumping off the roof of a building. It doesn't get any cheerier.
The film is set in a volatile time: 1953 Iran, just as Britain and the United States have come together to overthrow democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. It follows the intersecting lives of four women who are in as much turmoil emotionally as their country is politically. The material is so relentlessly dark -- suicide, rape, eating disorders and repression all have a home here -- that the film will satisfy only Iranian history buffs and devoted Neshat fans.
The woman on the roof is Munis, played by Shabnam Tolouei, and she is driven to suicide by her religious zealot of a brother who says such things as "If you leave the house, I'll break your legs." He wants his sister to turn off the news radio and to find a husband. When her brother discovers her body, he yells at her for dishonoring their family.
Another woman, Fakhri (Arita Shahrzad), has a husband who taunts her for being in menopause and unable (or, more likely, unwilling) to please him. After she leaves him, she buys a mystical orchard on the outskirts of Tehran where she creates her world of women without men. It's an Eden of vibrant flowers, chirping birds, algae-skimmed ponds and a constant haze of fog on the ground. How the other women find out about the orchard is not clear, but it becomes a place of healing.
Neshat's films are usually shown in art museums and galleries, not commercial movie theaters, and her work often deals with these issues of feminism and the Middle East. She is a talented visual artist, and "Women Without Men" is so beautifully shot that there are moments that should be frozen, made into photographs and hung on gallery walls. While Neshat brings to life a moment in Iranian history that has been overshadowed by the Islamic revolution of 1979, she doesn't make the film accessible to a mainstream audience. It flips from reality to the supernatural -- it's adapted from the magical realist novel of the same name by Shahrnush Parsipur -- a device that is sometimes intriguing but, more often, just confusing.
The most disturbing character in "Women Without Men" is the anorexic prostitute Zarin, played by Hungarian actress Orsi Tóth. Early in the film, Zarin visits a public bath to wash up. At first, she modestly pours water over her head from a bowl while clutching her towel to hide her emaciated body. Then, she starts scrubbing her limbs with a cloth, harder and harder, until she is bleeding all over the floor and her towel falls away. The camera turns to show a young boy watching this horrific scene, mouth agape and eyes unblinking, until his mother shoos him off. The rest of us are on our own.
* 1/2 Unrated. At AMC Loews Shirlington and Landmark's Bethesda Row Cinema. In Persian with subtitles. Contains nudity, violence and disturbing imagery. 95 minutes.