The debut feature by Marzyyeh Meshkini, the latest offering in this spring’s Shooting Gallery series of independent pictures, is a remarkable combination of stark realism and poetic fantasy, providing further evidence of the vibrancy of contemporary Iranian filmmaking. Working from a script by her husband Mohsen Makhmalbaf (the director of “Gabbeh”), under whom she trained at his film school, Mehkhidi has fashioned a startlingly moving fable about the place of women in a fundamentalist Islamic society, and she’s done so employing a cinematic technique so straightforward and pure that it puts the practitioners of Hollywood’s effects-laden blockbusters to shame.
The film is a triptych, each portion representing a stage in the life of an Iranian female–the moment of passage from childhood to supposed maturity, the time of subservience to male domination in marriage, and old age, when a semblance of freedom is restored too late. In the initial episode, a high-spirited young girl named Hava (Eve) is at the point of her ninth birthday, the age at which tradition says she passes into adulthood. She is about to be clothed in the obligatory chador, and will shortly have to cease playing with the boys she’s frolicked with for years. Since she was born around noon, however, her strict mother and grandmother allow her one more morning of liberty, which she’s taught to “count off” by putting a stick in the sand and noting when its shadow disappears. The ticking of this primitive sundial represents, of course, the gradual diminution of the childish freedom Hava will shortly lose. We then cut to a shot of a bicycle race along the coast, in which chador-clad women are furiously peddling; one is Ahoo (Shabnam Toloui), who is soon pursued by her husband, on horseback, who demands that she stop and threatens divorce if she doesn’t. In time the woman is similarly accosted by a cleric, her clansmen, and finally her brothers, who succeed in catching her and destroying the bike. The final segment introduces us to Hoora (Azizeh Seddighi), an ancient woman flush with cash (she describes it as an inheritance, presumably from the dead husband who had refused to spend it during their marriage), which she intends to spend lavishly buying all the creature comforts she’s always lacked. Soon she’s being transported through modern malls and streets in a cart by a helpful young boy (Badr Irouni Nejad) and followed by numerous other lads, all pushing dollies piled high with appliances and furniture. All the goods wind up unpacked on the beach, where the boys play with them during Hoora’s absence in a surrealistic musical number than may call to mind the Saraghina episodes of Fellini’s “8 1/2,” and eventually are loaded onto a ship for transport back to the woman’s village. Hava reappears on the shore, now clothed in the chador, to observe the old woman’s departure.
The conclusion could be taken to mean that all three episodes are happening simultaneously, but that would be too literal a reading. Together they clearly embody the stages in the life of an Iranian female living subject to age-old custom and religious law–the moment at which maturity brings confinement and subservience, the long period during which a woman can only dream of escaping her situation (and will fail if she tries), and the liberation of old age, which is nonetheless of little value because one has neither the time nor the ability to use it productively–and thus make up a profoundly sad observation on how a girl’s personality can be crushed and her talent wasted by a system which refuses to recognize them. (Of course, it has to be noted that there’s also an implied criticism of the women who allow themselves to be treated in such a fashion, too.)
But “The Day I Became a Woman” is not, fortunately, a treatise on the subjugation of women’s rights, though the message is obvious. It’s a film filled with glowing performances, striking compositions and marvelous bursts of humor. One must single out Akhtar, delightfully doe-eyed and open-faced, as little Hava; Toloui, grim and anxious, as the doomed Ahoo; and Seddighi, stooped-over and more than a bit bewildered, as the forgetful Hoora. Together they draw a portrait of Iranian womanhood both touching and sharp. As for Meshkini, she shows enormous promise, telling a story of radiant simplicity in a wonderfully economical style. Hers is a lovely and moving film.