Shirin Neshat’s Women Without Men follows four women during the 1953 CIA-sponsored coup of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and their struggles to be fully realized women in the oppressive gender and political atmosphere. The film looks great, with many outstanding shots and a great use of color. The cinematography (shot by Martin Gschlacht) is also the best thing the film has going for it. Adapted from a novel by Shahrnush Parsipur, the film struggles to flesh out the plot enough to keep interest. Of the four women, one is a woman about 30 who refused to get married and wants to be involved in politics (Shabnam Tolouei), a conservative friend of about the same age who wants to marry her friend’s older fundamentalist brother (Pegah Ferydoni), an older woman who is unhappily married to one of the Shah’s generals (Arita Shahrzad), and a prostitute who wants a different life (Orsi Toth). The political woman kills herself early in the film but is revived as her brother gets married (magical realism after all) and becomes a possibly living being working in the communist anti-Shah underground. The rest of the women end up at a villa outside of Teheran where they find freedom and peace. The prostitute never actually speaks and feels so vile from her work that she slowly dies. This means that she basically is there for obvious allegory. To be fair, the scene where she scrubs the filth off her at the bathhouse is the most memorable of the film, both because of her ferocity and because of Orsi Toth’s emaciated body makes one uncomfortable. The story of the woman married to the general is especially weak, yet it seems to be her villa that everyone ends up at.
This film is very much a western film. Neshat immigrated to the United States as a young woman and there’s no way this could be shown in Iran, not only for its open embrace of women’s rights, but also for its nudity. In fact, Neshat is banned from entering Iran for her political work, which is to her credit.
Ultimately this is fairly interesting for what it stands for but just doesn’t hold together well.