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Female trouble
Marziyeh Meshkini’s auspicious debut


With the anti-Iranian-cinema backlash all but official (never mind that Abbas Kiarostami made five or six of the best movies of the last two decades, and forget about Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Dariush Mehrjui and the several promising directors who are just getting started — we’ve had it with neo-realist films about children and all this oblique anti-censor stuff, and besides, it’s time to move on to the next world-film hot spot), The Day I Became a Woman could be one of the last Iranian films for some time to enjoy a regular release in the US.

Marziyeh Meshkini’s debut feature is good enough to make us miss already what we’ll soon be deprived of: that mixture of subtlety, experimentation, and conviction which can come only from a country with a thriving film culture, where people’s battles are fought on celluloid. Based on a scenario by Meshkini’s husband, Makhmalbaf, The Day I Became a Woman depicts the situation of women in Iran in three tales that correspond to three ages of a woman’s life. In the first, Hava wakes up on the morning of her ninth birthday. A friend of hers wants her to go outside and play with him, but her grandmother chases him away: Hava is a woman now and must hide herself. Then her grandmother and mother relent and decide that since Hava was born at noon (though her mother says 1 p.m.), she can go out and play until noon. How will she know when that is? When the stick she’s given no longer casts a shadow when upright.

In the second part, Ahoo leaves her husband to take part in a women’s bicycle race. Her husband follows her on horseback and tries to talk her into going back with him. She keeps pedaling. Her husband gives up and goes back, only to return with another man on horseback, a priest, who proceeds to divorce them. Ahoo continues with the race as they fall back. Next, a group of white-bearded men from her tribe catch up with her and urge her to go back to their village. Will she be able to resist the increasing pressure?

In the third part, an old woman, Hoora, has herself wheeled in a cart to the shopping mall at Kish International Airport. She wants to buy herself all the things she’s always wanted. Soon she has a fleet of carts following her loaded with boxes and piloted by a group of boys she has hired as porters. They unpack and arrange her new furniture and appliances for her on the beach, creating the absurdist effect of a modern house turned inside-out. This episode links up with the first two: two women from the bicycle race show up and comment on the events from the previous story; and at the end, little Hava watches from the shore as Hoora is rafted out to sea with all her purchases.

If the third part disappoints, despite its startling and beautiful imagery, that’s because this tying together of the stories is too well-matched to the theme of end-of-life accumulation. Yet Meshkini does resist closure. The plenitude Hoora wants is a lie, and her story ends with a sense of loss. It’s up to the younger woman and the little girl to realize the possibilities for living that, for the old woman, can take only the betrayed form of merchandise.

This third episode risks leaving an impression of the whole film as schematic and contrived, which it isn’t. The first episode is a touching essay in the kind of dry yet intimate naturalism that, for many viewers, has come to define Iranian cinema. And the second is the highlight of the film. Meshkini develops the allegorical scenario wholly in visual terms — the constant rush of camera movement; the contrast between the black-garbed women on bicycle and their male harassers on horseback — and through sound effects. Early in the episode, when the husband gives up trying to persuade his wife to join him, the horses’ hooves vanish from the soundtrack and the whirring of bicycle wheels, the mechanical sound of the pedals, and the women’s breathing take over. As the race progresses, the landscape becomes less barren, plants appear, and then the shore comes into view.

All this is superb, and the shift in point of view at the end of the episode — as the camera abandons the heroine to follow another woman — is a masterly touch. The film’s range of styles and narrative modes (from the naturalism of the first episode to the surrealism of the third) suggests a debut director’s portfolio piece. But it’s a largely successful one, emotionally involving and visually fluid — especially in the second episode. Let’s hope that Meshkini’s next film will prove to our commissars of culture that Iranian cinema isn’t just a fad whose time has passed.

Issue Date: April 5-12, 2001