On the occasion of her film The Hidden Half (Nimeh-ye penhan, 2001), director Tahmineh Milani was detained for trial by Iran’s Revolutionary Court, which adjudged the film to contain “counterrevolutionary” elements. This court is the premier legal arm of the fundamentalist Islamic clerics who currently have the final say in Iranian social, cultural and political matters. Milani is a woman artist in a male-dominated society that often doesn’t tolerate, let alone extol, freedom of speech. She was sentenced to prison by the court, but appeals from President Mohammad Khatami resulted in her release, although, technically, Milani may be reincarcerated at any time. Previous to The Hidden Half she wrote the script for Two Women (Do zan) in 1991 but, because of its politically sensitive subject matter, was unable to make the film until 1999, two years after Khatami’s election. It is an important fictional document testifying to the maltreatment of women in Iran, but, I regret to say, it is a tiresome, rhetorical, histrionic film that so overplays its hand it fails to convince.
Despite the title, the film is about only one woman: Fereshteh (Niki Karimi, dreadful), who runs afoul of the courts in the earliest years of the Islamic Republic. Fereshteh is an intelligent, ambitious student of architecture in Tehran, and her unhappy lot is occasionally counterpointed by a sister architecture student’s happier life. (Milani herself is married to an architect.) Fereshteh’s trouble consists of the three men in her life: a stalker, her father and her spouse. Intended to blur into a single entity of oppressive maleness, this unholy trio makes Fereshteh’s life a living hell.
Fereshteh’s father did not want his daughter to go to college in the first place; his brother, however, convinced him to give the girl a chance. In Iran, a girl can go to college only with the written permission of either her father or her husband, depending on her marital status.
Fereshteh attracts the attention of a boy, who, insisting on his love for her, wants to marry her and won’t take no for an answer. Hassan hounds her unmercifully, following her everywhere on his motorbike and, at one point, mistaking him for a suitor, tosses acid on Fereshteh’s cousin, ruining his life. Because of this incident, the police become involved; feeling disgraced, Fereshteh’s father blames only his daughter. He feels no concern for Fereshteh’s safety and pulls her out of school—this, against the background of the school’s own travails under Islamic rule. Hassan continues to stalk Fereshteh, precipitating a street accident wherein, fleeing him, Fereshteh runs over a couple of children at play, breaking the bones of one and killing the other. Fereshteh takes no responsibility, but the court trying the matter takes a different view. She is sentenced to pay a steep penalty to the family of the dead boy, further disgracing her own family—again, this is the way her father feels—in the process. Hassan is sentenced to thirteen years’ imprisonment for harassing her, precipitating the accident, and for scalding Fereshteh’s cousin with acid. His obsessive love has turned to hate, and he vows eventual revenge on Fereshteh. Meanwhile, Fereshteh’s family pressures her into marrying Ahmad, the suitor to whom they have become obligated because it is he who picked up the tab for the monetary penalty that the court imposed.
Ahmad says he will permit Fereshteh to return to school, but he renegs on the promise. On the contrary, insecurity prompts him to turn his wife into a prisoner, monitoring and controlling her every move. She is no longer allowed to telephone Roya, her classmate and best friend. She is no longer allowed to read books. Ahmad imagines that Fereshteh has secret meetings with a lover. The irony, of course, is that Ahmad’s insecurity derives from the fact that he himself compelled Fereshteh into marrying him. This rudimentary psychology is typical of the blunt, unnuanced nature of the film.
Ahmad and Fereshteh have two sons. Throughout their marriage, Ahmad berates his wife until she has lost all sense of self. The courts, though, will not grant her a divorce because Ahmad never lays a hand on her and pays the bills. When she seeks sanctuary at her parents’ home, her mother counsels her to give the marriage time and her father refuses to intervene. She does run away with the children, but Ahmad strong-arms the boys’ return, prompting Fereshteh’s own return when she can bear separation from her children no longer. Upon his release from prison, intent on killing her, Hassan tracks down Fereshteh. One of the last things he says to her is that she should have married him.
Milani has chosen a naturalistic style for her film, but it is at war with the constant speechifying in which Fereshteh indulges, almost as though she had read the script. Fereshteh is ever bemoaning her fate, giving voice to her feelings. Talking to Ahmad proves impossible, so Milani suddenly infuses the proceedings with Fereshteh’s voiceover, Fereshteh, that is, talking to herself or to us, who are by this time as fed up with listening to her complaints as Ahmad is. How much more powerful a film this would have been had Milani allowed us to gather up its theme from its images. But this film proceeds by scenes, not shots, and it very soon collapses into a pile of Fereshteh’s speeches, one after the other. Nor does it help that Milani interrupts narrative chronology for a weird extended flashforward—I guess that’s what it is—that’s dropped in without any sort of transitioning at either end.
This is no Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2003) or The Circle (Jafar Panahi, 2000)—outstanding films about the oppressed lot of women in Iran. Two Women is sincere, but it is also heavy-handed, witless and, ultimately, empty.