Two Women (1998)

Director: Tahmineh Milani
Cast: Niki Karimi, Mohammad Nikbin, Atila Peysani
(Iranian Film Society, 2001) Rated: Not rated
DVD release date: 29 October 2002 (Facets Video)

by Lesley Smith

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Lives Unlived

Note: Some plot spoilers follow.

In 1979, Iranian students cheered the end of the Shah’s regime by the hundreds of thousands. The popular hostility to the Shah’s “Americanization” of Iran, however, did not necessarily translate into unqualified support among the same students for the theocratic autocracy of Ayatollah Khomenei.

For a brief time, as Tahmineh Milani’s Two Women and The Hidden Half eloquently demonstrate, the intellectual ferment among Teheran’s university students promised a plurality of political futures, especially for women. In the loss of liberty that accompanied the revolution’s hardening in the early ’80s (exemplified in these movies by the regime’s closing of the universities), Milani charts the tragedy of stunted aspiration and the social subjugation faced by female participants.

Each movie tells the story of a provincial student (called, slightly confusingly, Fereshteh in both films, and played by the same actress, the luminous Niki Karimi), who is studying in Teheran at the time of the revolution. While Fereshteh is an obvious allegorical figure representing her particular generation of women, she is also defiantly flesh, blood, and intoxicated intellect, dazzling herself with her capacity to read, to think, and to feel.

In Two Women, she proposes that she and her friend Roya (Marila Zare’i) form a society of defiant “Apaches” who will shout, learn karate, build up their bodies, and generally shock anyone who expects submissive behavior from women. In The Hidden Half, she belongs to the communist party, writes social realist poetry, and falls in love with an urbane womanizing publisher.

In both films, a web of interlocking social forces destroys her dreams almost before they emerge. The films are undoubtedly bitter indictments of the fundamentalist revolution. But they gain their greatest power from Milani’s subtle annotation of that revolution, showing that the freedom Fereshteh enjoys depends upon her escape from rural life and her residence in the metropolis. In this, the films examine how the revolution capitalizes on a deep-rooted provincial conservatism to return to an older generation the control over its women it had so recently begun to lose. The complicated environment of the 1979 revolution allows Milani to mix passion and political analysis to a compelling degree.

For example, in Two Women, the actions of three male figures interlock to corral Fereshteh, a promising architecture student in Teheran, back into a provincial family compound. Each symbolizes an element of male authority and its social control of women. First to appear is a nameless campus stalker (Mahammad Reza Forutan) who believes the very fact that he has fallen hopelessly in love with Fereshteh permits him to dominate her life, right up to the vicious dousing of her cousin (whom the stalker mistakes for her boyfriend) in acid. Although Fereshteh has done nothing to encourage this stalker, her father blames her insistence on independence for the actions of the man, and appears in Teheran to drag her back to the “safety” of her small town.

The film certainly shows the extent of patriarchal power, but also demonstrates how female subjugation demands a complex, male complicity. In a sense, the stalker represents the revolution, single-minded, anarchic, and ruthless, while Fereshteh’s father and husband represent the deep-rooted traditions that become its willing collaborators. This imbrication is seen when the stalker follows her to the provinces and involves her in a fatal car accident. Although absolved from blame for the death of the stalker, in her father’s eyes, Fereshteh further disgraces her family through her involvement in such a serious court case.

Furthermore, her vulnerability as a woman before the judicial system allows a third male figure, Ahmad (Atila Pesiani), to step forward with a loan to save her family’s reputation, and to pursue her as a bride. The universities, Fereshteh’s only escape, remain closed, and she finally weds, persuaded by her future husband’s promise that when the universities re-open, he will allow her to continue her studies. That promise marks Ahmad’s last concession to Fereshteh’s aspirations. Years of unmediated mental and physical cruelty follow, itemized by Milani in the chilling, dispassionate daily attrition of jealousy and anger.

The Hidden Half, although superficially a much more melodramatic story of innocence corrupted, romanticized adultery, and the chimera of true love, also indicts the system that allied itself so eagerly with the theocratic clamp down after 1979. But The Hidden Half also draws compelling parallels with the failure in 1953 of the anti-western, Marxist modernization of Iran, whose collapse ushered in the rule of the Shah. It’s as if, in naming her protagonist Fereshteh once more, and casting the same actress, Milani is mapping out through this film yet another possible future for her, and by extentison, all Iranian women. This time, however, the social conservatism that thwarts Milani’s protagonist is primarily wielded by a woman.

In this movie, Fereshteh falls in love with a glamorous magazine publisher (Atila Peysani), who meets his literary friends in the same café her communist cell uses for its self-examinations. As the Islamic persecution of the communists accelerates, so too does Fereshteh’s affair with the Range Rover-driving publisher, until he arranges her escape to London to avoid persecution.

However, Fereshteh is intercepted by the publisher’s wife, who uses her wealth to whisk Fereshteh to a “safe” apartment. There, Fereshteh learns that she is almost identical to the publisher’s first love, his wife’s communist cousin, who perished in the struggles of 1953. Horrified to discover her lover is married, and persuaded to believe that his love is nothing more than a shadow of an earlier passion, Fereshteh abandons him.

Again, Fereshteh is betrayed by an older generation: her lover cannot initiate change, limiting his involvement with a Marxism that might have protected Iran from the excesses of both the Shah and the Ayatollahs to futile romantic infatuation. His wife prefers the security of an enclosed, protected existence to the possibility of an independent life without a man who has probably never loved her.

In contrast to Two Women, this film closes with hope. When Khosro leaves for Shiraz to investigate the case of a female radical under sentence of death, Fereshteh entrusts to him her narrative of the love affair, and her adolescent life as a communist activist. As the publisher’s wife did, she recognizes that the time for change has passed for her. The condemned woman begins her narrative to Khosro with the same words Fereshteh used to begin her story: Khosro’s head bends slightly, as if, at last, the revolution might be ready to acknowledge, however silently, the world of Iran’s women.

In U.S. and Western European movies, the exploration of lives unlived rarely transcends the wistful, the nostalgic or the poignant. If there is an attempt at tragedy, it is the tragedy of the wrong choice, in which the demanding self is thwarted in its expectations of love, power and security. Milani’s films remind Western audiences that most women (and men) in the rest of the world face the tragedy of little or no choice, in which the most one can hope for, especially if one is a woman, is physical survival, and a fragile hope for the next generation. Milani herself was arrested and threatened with execution in 2001 after the release of The Hidden Half. Today, although liberated after the intervention of President Khatami, she remains a threatened voice of freedom.