Women Without Men Movie Review: Rape, Rebellion and Radio in Iran

Though radio has waned as the once singular electronic means of mass communication since the advent of television and now digital devices, that key first component linking global collective consciousness around the planet has lately been assuming a rebirth in movies. Radio figured as a heavily symbolic character in its own right last year, in movies like Pontpool as a method of toxic mainstream media mind control. And in Pirate Radio as subversive precursor to the demand for popular seizure of the tools of global communication, currently extending online.

And now, the melancholy, poetically and passionately crafted and never less than visually enchanting Women Without Men (Zanan-e Bedun-e Mardan) conceives of radio as a hypnotic call to arms against oppression and imperialism in mid-20th century Iran. Indeed, the dramatic feature directed by Iranian born, NYC based female artist turned filmmaker Shirin Neshat, intimates clues about the current anti-Western sentiments that have swept across the Middle East, as originating in the British and US orchestrated 1953 coup in Iran against that country’s first democratically elected government, and the seed of this contemporary cultural hostility and rage.

Conceived as historically rooted magical realism delving into multiple layers of individual and national repression mirroring one another while spinning out of control, Women Without Men focuses on the disparate lives of four females in 1953 Iran. Munis is a thirty year old single woman who has been confined to her home by her domineering brother, because she refuses to marry and rejects the many suitors he lines up for her.

Instead, Munis spends her days mesmerized the radio, and news of mass street protests in Tehran against a pending military coup being orchestrated by the Shah in collusion with the CIA, after President Mossadegh nationalizes the British controlled Iranian petroleum industry. (Iran at the time, was the major oil producer on the planet). Forbidden to leave home, Munis kills herself and is buried in the back yard, but is liberated from her grave by close friend Faezeh, who hears her pleas beneath the earth. And her ghost flees to Tehran, following the sounds of reports on radios along the way, where she joins anti-military communist rebels in the streets.

Meanwhile, the obediently traditional, veiled Faezeh secretly longs for Munis’ brother, but he’s engaged to another woman and will only consider Faezeh eventually as a second wife. And in a wealthier enclave, fifty year old intellectual and free thinker Fakhri is an object of scorn by her husband, the general about to stage the coup on behalf of the Shah.

Spurned by her spouse for being menopausal and therefore no longer desirable to him, while he mulls acquiring a younger mate, Fakhri is encouraged by a former lover to share her uncommon singing talents in public, a creative pursuit forbidden to women, rather than spending her life just singing to herself. And in the spirit of rebellion sweeping the country, Fakhri breaks out of the prison of her callous marriage, fleeing to the countryside where she purchases an abandoned property that somehow transforms into an enchanted forest sanctuary.

Here, these many wounded and exiled women and political fugitives seek safe haven. Including the tormented and mute Zarin, a young girl forced into prostitution whose ravaged, anorexic body symbolizes an Iran plundered and depleted by avaricious forces feeding upon it, both externally and conspiring from within.

Adapted from the magical realist novel by female author Sharhnush Parsipur, and winner of the Silver Lion for Best Director at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, Women Without Men seamlessly weaves its majestic tale with lyrical grace spun from the haunting horrors of history. And is an astonishing tribute from the assured hand of unbelievably first time director Shirin Neshat, to both the scars and resilience of women and nations alike.

IndiePix Films


4 stars

Women Without Men will debut at New Directors, New Films on 3/30 and 3/31. The film series runs 3/24 through 4/4 in NYC. More information is at: Newdirectors.org. Women Without Men will open theatrically in LA beginning April 9th.

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.