The 1989 publication of Shahrnush Parsipur’s novella resulted in the author’s imprisonment in Iran, owing to its (allegedly) blasphemous depictions of female empowerment and sexuality. Parsipur currently lives in exile in the U.S., and the book, now considered a mini-masterpiece, remains banned in the motherland. It’s also perfect source material for Iranian expat Shirin Neshat, an art-world star known for work involving the complexity and contradictions of the Islamic female experience. The film is set amidst the turbulence of Tehran in the Fifties, and the loose narrative ties together the tribulations of four women from different social classes, each suffering under some strain of patriarchy. (Virginity, prostitution, and suicide are motifs; and a literal garden of safety—from men—offers at least an allegorical possibility of a better world.)
Neshat’s images are startling in their sensual immediacy and aesthetic nuance. And while the film could be summarily described as a series of meticulously controlled tableaux, the expanded field of a full-length narrative serves her well. She’s already proven herself as a creator of iconographic images; now she can deploy them within the psychological dimension the more expansive medium provides. It’s tricky: Neshat’s focus on the female predicament under Islam has always cloaked itself in symbol and metaphor. Everything becomes more legible when it’s framed within a story. Which means, of course, that you won’t be seeing her film in any Iranian multiplexes anytime soon.
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