Just last year, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi showed us a diverse Tehran while circumventing government repression. Passengers debate the death penalty and video piracy while a young girl explains that a teacher taught her the kinds of censorship required to make a movie distributable. The passengers stay anonymous and credits blank because Panahi is under a 20-year ban from filmmaking by the Iranian government’s film branch, the Cinema Organisation. His latest movies have been secretly produced and released, this one openly on the city streets — spitting in the face of the government, not its people.
This makes writer/director Tahmineh Milani’s 1999 Iranian film Two Women all the more impressive in hindsight. Set during the first years of the 1979 Iranian Revolution (thanks to a series of flashbacks), the movie tracks the branching lives of two students at Tehran University. Royā (Merila Zare’i), relatively wealthy but not as gifted a student, befriends the brilliant yet poor Fereshteh (Niki Karimi) after hiring her as a math tutor.
The rest of the film escalates a series of metaphorical misfortunes, breaking away from a Linklaterian ramble and roll that we see on campus and becoming a much bleaker, almost French New Wave, horror film — all handheld tension, winding staircases and power strati defined by altitude in the frame.
From the safe, warm college campus scenarios that unfold in bathrooms, bus stops and classrooms, we see fringes of an increasingly conservative religious movement nipping at the edges of the screen. The shifting tide of an increasingly misogynist-burgeoning Islamic Republic is reflected in Fereshteh’s personal trauma. Threatened by a stalker, the ever-present spectre of sexual violence follows her with a persistence echoed in the ever-encroaching march of radical Islamic rule in Iran.
Women, especially liberated females like Fereshteh (who Karimi fuels with an articulate fire, alternatively acerbic and loving) fell the furthest during the revolution. From the beginning of the film, Fereshteh and Royā embody a female friendship rivaling the strongest and most loving of any American film: their conversations cover art, love, men, careers and families. Fereshteh’s decision to respond to her stalker by creating a self-defense group (“Karate! Lifting weights!”), strangely called the Apaches, becomes a tragic reminder of freedoms once held when circumstances lead to her marriage.
Here, though a bit heavy-handed with her husband’s tonal shift, the transformation from the take-charge firebrand to the dead-eyed, haunted mother of two is especially affecting thanks to the verve with which Karimi plays Fereshteh. We watch the light leave her eyes as she is quickly repressed by her abusive husband, her dreams crippled. The film’s metaphorical culmination, in which the ultimate physical sign of womanhood (childbirth) takes on the growing despondency and mounting tension of a slasher film, ends with a primal shriek. Motherhood has murdered her aspirations.
A beautiful, heartbreaking allegory, the turmoil of a country and its women plays out in the form of emotional domestic abuse. When Royā and Fereshteh meet in the present day, it is not as old friends, but as a personification of the phrase “there but for the grace of God go I.”
From AAA TV to Z-movies, Oklahoma City-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.