'Not Without My Daughter': a true tale of terrifying repression in Iran

January 11, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'Not Without My Daughter'

Starring Sally Field and Albert Molina.

Directed by Brian Gilbert.

Released by MGM.

PG-13.

*** 1/2 "Not Without My Daughter" has a junky made-for-TV title that may make you roll your eyes in contempt, but the movie has the clarity of nightmare to it, deeply unsettling, completely riveting and by the end exhausting and triumphant at once.

The movie, derived from a book of the same dim title by Betty Mahmoody, tells a true story. Ms. Mahmoody, married to a cosmopolitan Iranian-born doctor 20 years separated from his heritage and living in the suburbs, accompanied her husband to his homeland in 1984. The couples' daughter Mahtob traveled with them in what was to be a two-week family vacation.

However, once there, they were plunged into the emotional and cultural caldron that was post-Revolutionary Iran, a country seemingly gone mad in its mindless zeal to re-create its fundamentalist past under the mesmerizing influence of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Moody, the doctor, soon "reverts" to the obedient Moslem child he'd once been, yields to the pressures of his family and nation, and in very short order has set about to transform his American daughter and wife into the very model of the 11th century Moslem family.

This is more than a life without malls and Tupperware. It's a life of absolutist faith, complete obedience, a submergence of self in larger entities, abstinence, temperance, hatred of things Western and modern and, most appallingly, the complete surrender of womanhood to a fierce male oligarchy. Brian Gilbert's film is at its most compelling as it explores the terrifying ancient world from the point of view of Ms. Mahmoody; we are in a totalitarian world that is both literally 1984 and figuratively "1984."

The deepest terror turns not so much on Betty's danger, because it's clear she can leave any time she wants. But not with her daughter. What is so unacceptable to her is the thought of giving the thoroughly American child up to a culture that

professes to worship women while it oppresses them viciously. The bond between mother and daughter is exquisitely wrought in this film.

And yet at the same time, it's not quite an exercise in oh-so-safe Moslem bashing. Gilbert -- as did Mahmoody -- continually finds moments of compassion and sympathy in the crushing terror of the repression. Two purportedly fundamentalist teachers are extremely generous to her, making a connection across the cultural barriers to their common womanhood. A shopkeeper and later a cosmopolitan businessman literally risk their lives to help her, and for no reason except their own decency. This subtext of human nobility gives the movie a poignancy a lesser director might not have been able to locate in the story.

Betty, played with gumption and humanity by Sally Field, is a little slow on the uptake and seems in the early going a one-dimensional suburban dummy. Her awareness of who her husband really is and what is really going on in Iran seems dangerously dull. But of course, as must all movies about heroic women be these days, the true arc of the story is not Betty's escape from Moslem totalitarianism but escape to herself. The ordeal she undergoes isn't just an ordeal; it's an education in selfhood and sisterhood. The Betty who tries to make it out of Iran is a stronger, fiercer, better woman than the nitwit who naively marched in 18 months earlier.

Much attention will focus on Field, and rightly so; but this movie doesn't begin to work if Moody doesn't come to life, and the British actor Albert Molina brings him to immediate, crackling animation. Molina will be vaguely familiar to art-house fans from his splendidly geeky performance as Joe Orton's lover in the twisted "Prick Up Your Ears."

Molina shows us Moody's conflict over and final surrender to his long-buried faith and to his tyrannical mother by degrees -- he's never a simple wife-beating ogre, but a man torn between worlds and selves who even at his most dogmatic has some core of regret and sadness; but he also shows us Moody's considerable charm and we understand how Betty could have loved him and how difficult is the decision to leave him, not merely because to do so is so dangerous but because it is to leave a loved one.

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