Film catches cycle of life brilliantly

Review: Marziyeh Meshkini unveils the yearning to break free from society's restraints in `The Day I Became a Woman.'

April 06, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Like a hazy dawn that explodes into dazzling sunrise, "The Day I Became a Woman," an Iranian movie made up of three linked stories set near the same arid shoreline, takes 20 minutes to burst into fierce, inspired filmmaking.

In the first part, director Marziyeh Meshkini traces the last carefree hours of a girl on her 9th birthday - the day her mother and grandmother drape her in a chador from head to toe and declare her a woman. In the third part, Meshkini follows an old lady who flies to a resort city, buys every comfort or convenience from a refrigerator to a living-room set, and lays it all out on the sand.

In between comes the episode that unifies the triptych and electrifies the movie: the dissolution of a marriage played out on horseback and the seat of a bicycle.

At the start, we see a man galloping recklessly on his steed, the wind blowing up and down the back of his white blouse as if inflating and deflating a hump. He rides heedless of his surroundings, upsetting flocks of animals and schools of birds, until he reaches his goal: a long line of cyclists racing down a bike path.

To Western eyes it might take a second to realize that all these black-clad pedalers are women. But this enraged husband knows even before he spots her that his spouse has joined this group against his wishes. And it takes no more than a glance at her face to see that she is racing for her soul. This mini-epic that begins with the figure of the furious male rider shifts perspective abruptly and astonishingly, funneling that torrent of masculine energy into an audience's urgent empathy for an embattled wife.

It's pure, impassioned moviemaking, the kind that suspends time and engulfs a viewer in a heady emotional ether. The men of her family and her tribe, affronted by her independence, encroach on her and the other cyclists, urging her to step down and come with them. It's not enough for the village mullah to declare her divorced; she wounded the group's pride and must be punished.

The way Meshkini films this journey, the audience senses the approach of men on horseback as the heroine does, with her ears and her peripheral vision - and the hair raised on her hooded neck.

Yet there's another turn to this story. After all, the woman is in the middle of a marathon. Even if the other racers understand the calamity that is befalling her, they continue to jockey for position and whiz by her, biking to the beat of their Walkmans. When she confronts a map along the path that says, "You are here," those simple words register as a doleful declaration addressed specifically to her. The wife becomes a figure at once mournful and uplifting - more than a feminist symbol, a testament to the rebel hopes of any individual.

The power of the story lies both in kinetic metaphor and in the clout the actors give to every moment. They impart the accumulated force of a lifetime - or of centuries-old traditions - to each gesture. Shabnaum Toloui delivers what amounts to a great silent performance. She doesn't merely convey determination or desperation, but a huge, inchoate desire. As she raced along, I thought of Bellow's "Henderson, the Rain King," whose inner voice keeps telling him, "I want, I want, I want!"

What makes these stories mesh is that each of these women wants.

The girl at the beginning wants to remain free so she can play with her best friend, a little boy. Her mother and grandmother have told her that at noon she must return and don the chador. She already has a black shawl - but soon swaps that for a toy from a little fellow who uses it as a sail for his raft.

The matriarchs give her a stick to prop up in the sand: when it no longer casts a shadow, she will realize that it's noon. In her final girlhood act, she shares a lollipop with her buddy, passing it between the bars of his window, taking alternate licks, hurrying to finish before the shadow vanishes.

We can't help thinking that when she dons her black robe, this vibrant girl will be a shadow of her former self.

The old lady at the end wants to buy all the goods she never had. As a beach urchin pushes her wheelchair from shop to shop, and she acquires a line of delivery boys rolling behind her, she's like a Pied Piper of materialism - surely, no good will come of this. But director Meshkini is not a simple moralist.

While the old lady tries to exchange a tea kettle at a mall, marvels break out on the beach: The boys turn on her appliances (without electricity!), frolic in her tub, even hold a parody of a wedding procession. In play, they break through the wall between castes, families and genders.

When two of the bike racers meet up with the old lady, they tell her she should give the stuff to them, because they could use it as a dowry. But she's not persuaded. The goods this woman buys represent her quest for self-respect. With the help of all her surrogate sons, she will float her things on rafts and load them onto a big ship.

The girl from the first episode, whose shawl became a sail, watches from the shore.

The old lady talks of a man that got away; she expresses the desire for a child of her own. Taking one colored ribbon after another off her fingers, she can't recall the final item of her shopping list. But the picture itself is all the stronger for not being tied up in ribbons. What Meshkini's final vision expresses is a yearning for open endings, in pictures and even more, in life.

`The Day I Became a Woman'

Starring Shabnam Toloui

Directed by Marziyeh Meshkini


Running time 78 minutes

Sun score * * * 1/2

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