Social Aspirations

Fearlessly simplistic, if less politically daring than it might initially seem, The Day I Became a Woman is the latest feminist tract to emerge from the curiously family-centered film atelier of Iranian auteur Mohsen Makhmalbaf—written by Makhmalbaf and directed by his 31-year-old wife, Marziyeh Meshkini.

Big wigs: Depp and Cruz in Blow
photo: L. Sebastian/New Line
Big wigs: Depp and Cruz in Blow


Directed by Ted Demme
Written by Nick Cassavetes and David McKenna, from the book by Bruce Porter
New Line Opens April 6

The Day I Became a Woman
Directed by Marziyeh Meshkini
Written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Shooting Gallery
Loews State Opens April 6

Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine
Written and directed by Bahman Farmanara
New Yorker
Lincoln Plaza Opens April 6

Where The Apple, which was written by Makhmalbaf and directed by his then 18-year-old daughter, Samira, found a suggestive metaphor in the real-life situation of twin girls imprisoned at home by their fundamentalist father and blind mother, The Day I Became a Woman is somewhat more schematic in imposing metaphor on life. A highly economical allegory on three stages of Iranian female existence (childhood, married life, old age), the movie opens cute and poignant, turns wildly visceral, and ends in a burst of magical realism. The elemental landscape in which the action unfolds is rendered additionally exotic for being set on Kish Island in the Persian Gulf.

In the initial episode, a nine-year-old girl who is due to be fitted for her first chador bargains for an hour more of childhood—playing, for the last time, on an equal basis with a little neighbor boy. Next, marriage is shown as a condition of existential harassment. Her chador flowing in the wind, a young wife participates in an all-female bicycle race through a scrubby seaside desert. ("Cycling" was one of the non-cinematic courses given at the Makhmalbaf Film School.) As she pedals, she's pursued by horsemen. These include her husband—who threatens her with divorce—as well as her "disgraced" kinsmen.

The third and most mysterious episode concerns an elderly woman, perhaps newly widowed, who arrives at Kish International Airport and goes on to shop for everything denied to her in life. The caravan of her purchases is wheeled out on the empty beach and packed up, along with the old lady, on a raft. This cheerful ritual, suggestive of a journey into the afterlife, is observed by two women from the cycling race as well as the young girl, knitting together the three stories to establish the sense of cosmic simultaneity that is the most effective aspect of the film.

With several current retros and The Circle (another No Exit metaphor for female cultural imprisonment under the regime of Islamic fundamentalism) opening next week, this is indeed the season for Iranian films. Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine, the first movie in 20 years by the long-banned Bahman Farmanara, a onetime distributor of foreign films in North America, is a humorously death-haunted psychodrama in which the filmmaker—playing a movie director called Bahman Farjami—undertakes an absurd quest to document his own funeral.

A cozier, more generic-looking Taste of Cherry, Smell of Camphor—which had its local premiere at the last New York Film Festival—is more or less bracketed by the protagonist's discovery that someone else has been buried in his plot and his experience of watching himself, Tom Sawyer style, as he is laid to rest. Farmanara, playing a kind and portly family man, is an intensely sympathetic figure (at least in his on-screen persona), but he would have needed the chops of Andrei Tarkovsky—or else the innocence of Samira Makhmalbaf—to successfully bring off this fusion of memory, fantasy, and social satire.

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