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Women’s Prison

Posted by martinteller on April 1, 2013

Tahereh Yousefi (Roya Taymourian) is the new warden at an Iranian prison for women.  She fought in the Islamic Revolution and she means business.  As she cracks down on disorder and un-Muslim practices in the jail, she meets resistance from headstrong Mitra (Roya Nonahali), a woman who killed her abusive stepfather.  Over three periods — 1984, 1992 and 2001 — Taherah gradually softens and Mitra gradually becomes more complacent about her fate.  But the prison gets more and more crowded with women, many of them jailed for insignificant “crimes” of sharia law.  In each period, Mitra takes a young girl (all played by Pegah Ahangarani) under her wing.

In some ways, this is your typical “women in prison” movie.  A tough warden, rebellious behavior, escape attempts, smuggling contraband, a childbirth, a suicide, rape, infighting among the prisoners (no lurid catfights in short-shorts, though).  What makes it different, of course, is the political and cultural context.  Perhaps a prison isn’t the most subtle allegory for the conditions facing Iranian women, but first time director Manihej Hekmat doesn’t rub your nose in it.  The least sympathetic character — Tahereh — is the one who is the strongest supporter of Islamic law, forcing the women to wear their head coverings, despite a lice infestation.  But even she is given moments of sympathy, and one of the best moments in the film is when she secretly indulges in a Western decadence: lipstick (reminiscent of Madhabi Mukherjee in Mahanagar).

As in Day Break (a.k.a. Dame Sobh) I was struck by how the Iranian prison is far less oppressive and squalid than one might envision.  The inmates are free to wander from cell to cell much of the time, have all manner of curtains and adornments, even cook in their cells.  Many have their children with them.  However, a prison is a prison is a prison, and they still have to contend with vermin, often inedible food, the abuses of other inmates, and the whims of their keepers.  Many shouldn’t even be there… political prisoners mixed in with violent ones, or women only there because it was their word against that of a man.

Taymourian and Nonahali are both very good, and the aging process is handled as well if not better than any Hollywood makeup artist could do it.  Ahangarani deserves special notice for tackling three distinct and very different roles.  The film’s camerawork is more basically functional than stylized, but occasional Hekmat lands a particularly expressive shot, especially in the long, confining corridor of cells.  A movie worth seeing both for its subversive social commentary and its well-crafted drama.  Rating: Very Good (81)


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