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To be an independent woman in Iran, even in the less theocratic days of the 1950s, was more of a feat than even Beyoncé could imagine. Now Iran has hijabs and socially enforced modesty; under the Shahs women had slightly more say, but there was also the implicit expectation of marriage and submission. Shirin Neshat‘s Women Without Men looks at the intersecting lives of several different women who strayed from convention in one way or another. Neshat’s carefully stylized cinematography gives the story a surreal quality, hitting on the magical realism of the well-known book (at least in Iran) that the movie’s based on; there are several moments where it becomes difficult to distinguish dream from reality.

The individual stories—-leaving prostitution, leaving a spouse, forgoing marriage—-are pitted against a backdrop of civil unrest. It’s 1953, and the imperialist Shah is staging a coup at America’s behest. The film focuses more directly on the politics than the book does, but the violent government raids and clashes with protesters mainly act as a powerful exterior metaphor for the smaller, personal struggles faced by the women. They are looking for a space, or a “new way,” as the film puts it, in which they can simply exist without restriction.

The acting is generally excellent, understated, and moving; all four women make grander statements without words than with them. Underscoring the recurring themes of rebirth and new life, an incredible orchard plays a key role in the film. Neshat uses the natural world as a feminine symbol of serenity, saturating the colorful flora to contrast the monochromatic streets of Tehran. The orchard provides an alternative to the harsh political strife wreaking havoc on the rest of the country, and it becomes a sort of home for the exiled. Without ever becoming pedantic, Women Without Men explores what it is to be a woman and offers a visually compelling look at 20th century Iran.

Women Without Men is currently screening at Bethesda Row Cinema.