Tahmineh Milani’s Two Women places the feminist desire for equality in the center of the conflict between conservative and progressive elements in Iranian society. The film provoked controversy in Iran, but its awkward mix of polemic and melodramatics probably won’t travel very well.
Fereshteh (Niki Karimi) and Roya (Marila Zare’i) meet in architectural college. Brilliant and driven, Fereshteh supports herself by tutoring her less accomplished classmates, Roya among them. The two become fast friends, but Roya’s privileged, liberal background prevents her from fully comprehending how precarious her friend’s independence is. Fereshteh is being stalked by an insane thug on a motorbike who threatens to carve up her face unless she marries him. When the stalker mutilates her cousin with acid, Fereshteh’s father blames her for bringing disgrace on the family and drags her home. The stalker follows her there, and in trying to escape him, she’s involved in a car accident that kills a child. The stalker is sentenced to 13 years in prison, and although Fereshteh is guiltless, she’s given a heavy fine. Ahmad, one of her many rejected suitors, offers to pay it, but only if she’ll marry him. Her father forces her to agree. This intricate setup establishes a blame-the-victim mentality in which the stalker, the father, and the suitor are all complicit.
The marriage turns out to be no better than jail. Ahmad (Atila Pesiani) is as pathological as the stalker. Like him, he’s enraged by Fereshteh’s independent mind and spirit, and he’s determined to break her will. Both men view women as objects to be controlled and marriage as the institution that legalizes their need to dominate and oppress. Eventually, even Fereshteh’s father admits that he’s sold his daughter into the equivalent of slavery, but he’s too weak and ashamed to stand up to her husband. Although he appears in only half a dozen scenes, the father is by far the most complex of the male characters—the only one who displays any ambivalence or mixed motives. Ahmad is potentially interesting, but Pesiani’s performance verges on the ludicrous: He contorts his eyebrows the way silent-film villains twirled their mustaches.
Still, the success of Two Women is dependent on its female characters, and here too there’s a problem. Roya is less a character in her own right than a foil for Fereshteh. Roya has a perfect marriage—she and her husband are partners in life and in their architectural firm. The first time we see her, she’s on a construction site wearing a hard hat over her head scarf. “Your husband-and-wife team is the greatest,” says a satisfied client. It’s all too good to be true.
A more accurate title would have been My Friend Fereshteh, since it’s Fereshteh on whom the narrative is almost entirely focused. Milani’s thesis seems to be that Iran, despite certain liberal inroads, remains a conservative, misogynist society and that its wrath falls most heavily on its most brilliant and ambitious women. Played with conviction and intelligence by Karimi, Fereshteh is a compelling hero. But our belief in her plight is undermined by the film’s reliance on the old-fashioned tropes of melodrama—surging music, over-the-top performances, a schematic narrative filled with forced coincidences, and a descent into madness that’s right out of 19th-century opera. Unlike Moufida Tlatli, who in her great The Silences of the Palace turns a critical eye on the intersection of female subjectivity with Middle Eastern film melodrama, Milani embraces stylistic clichés whole-hog as a way of popularizing tough content. Or maybe her ideas just outstrip her directing ability.
So too It’s the Rage is more commendable as social protest than as filmmaking. With a script adapted by Keith Reddin from his own play, James D. Stern’s directorial debut is an impossibly stagy treatise on why it’s bad for guns to be as easily available as they are in the U.S. The film weaves together several story lines, each of them involving at least one character with a low boiling point, caught in a stressful situation and in proximity to a handgun. There are a couple of cops and one or two felons, but most of the characters are seemingly solid, successful citizens. The film’s point seems to be that most of us are less rational and more violent than we want to admit, so it’s only good sense to limit access to lethal weapons.
Not to belabor the obvious, but the difference between a play and a film is that the former is more dialogue-driven than the latter. Stern attempts to compensate for the wall-to-wall chatter with elaborate camera moves and flashy intercutting. On the other hand, he seems to have directed the actors to speak the lines as if there were quote marks around them (the Mamet approach) and as if they needed to project their voices over great distances. Thus, even Jeff Daniels and Joan Allen look as if they’ve never been in front of a camera before. Playing a post-psychotic-break version of Bill Gates, Gary Sinise pops his eyes, screws up his face, and goes so bonkers that you have to be awed by his chutzpah, not to mention his immaculate comic timing. It’s the Rage attempts to engage with its built-in hybridity, but it fails to develop into one thing or another.
If nothing else, Two Women and It’s the Rage are admirable for their social conscience. Shadow Hours, however, is too enthralled with its own hipness to have anything else on its mind. Balthazar Getty (looking like a more catatonic Charlie Sheen) stars as a recovering coke addict who’s tempted from the straight life by Peter Weller, playing—well, there’s no getting around it—the devil. Since being clean and sober involves a job pumping gas and a whining, pregnant fiancée (Rebecca Gayheart), you can’t fault the guy for slipping.
The devil drives a fast car, is probably a serial killer of women, and has a free pass to most of the after-hours hot spots in L.A., including a gambling den where Russian roulette is the game of choice and an s/m parlor where you may spot performance artist Ron Athey hanging from the hardware piercing his eyebrows. Given the film’s faux naïveté, even Athey’s transgressive art seems reduced to mere exploitation (his own and the viewers’).
Fashionably photographed by Frank Byers in the manner of too many low-budget independent films, Shadow Hours would be at least nice to look at if its near-phosphorescent greens, reds, and flesh tones weren’t so blatantly ripped off from Nan Goldin. Isaac Eaton wrote and directed; he evidences little talent in either department.