Two Women is in no way related to the memorable 1961 Vittorio De Sica film that won Sophia Loren an Academy Award. One wonders whether the director of the current effort knows that fine film whose title she has now bestowed on her own new work. The world that Iranian filmmaker Tahmineh Milani portrays in Two Women feels profoundly different from the West; she at once offers a glimpse into the exotic socio-religious context of post-revolutionary Iran, a heartfelt plea for social change, and, unfortunately, a disappointing, unbalanced script that in the end elicits more annoyance than sympathy.
The opening scene in a Tehran architect’s office offers an instant contrast: it’s a modern office that could be in New York or Paris, but the woman who answers the phone is wearing hijab, the Muslim woman’s garments – a long dress that completely covers the body, a khimar to cover the head. The men, on the other hand, are dressed no differently from men anywhere in the western world. To the western eye, at least, the anachronistic contrast provides an immediate key to the theme of the film.
Shortly thereafter we meet Roya (Marila Zare�i), one of the eponymous women, herself an architect, wearing hijab – and a hard hat – as she supervises on a highrise construction site. Roya and her husband are shown to have a modern relationship of equals. But then we are flashed back to her college friendship with Fereshteh (Niki Karimi), a highly intelligent woman from a small town background. After what seems like more exposition of the college period than is justified, Roya becomes a minor character and the focus shifts completely to Fereshteh. Her father forces her to quit school and return to their home town, where conservative religious and social values prevail.
Fereshteh is ultimately pressured into marriage with a man not of her choosing. It is the plight of the intelligent and educated woman trapped in the highly restrictive traditional Muslim position of obedient wife to all-powerful husband that forms the core of the film. (That the film could be made at all is indicative of moderation of fundamentalist Muslim control in Iran.)
But the screenplay, by Milani, undercuts her powerful thesis. The significant male characters – Fereshteh’s father, husband, and a stalker who harasses her – are never fleshed-out. They are used to illustrate the power positions of men over women in Iranian society, but we get no sense of them as real people with complicated or conflicted feelings – the humanity gets buried under the symbols. (And the solution to arguments for Iranian men is repeatedly depicted as drawing a knife in a threatening manner.)
When the father who haslimited Fereshteh’s options begins to support her in her conflict with her husband, the change of his character is unexplained by the circumstances and not convincing. The stalker, while having symbolic value, seems throughout like a mechanical plot device and smart, independent Fereshteh’s failure to deal with him more effectively stretches credulity.
But it is the endless sameness with which the conflict is presented, the whiney, argumentative tone between Fereshteh and her father, then with her husband, that becomes tiresome and erodes sympathy for the character and her situation. It may be real, but it doesn’t make good drama.
Milani’s work here has passion, if not finesse. There are more than a few moments that make you wish she had better control of the overall sweep of the film: a morning-after-the-wedding pan from the bride’s resigned face as she stands at a window, back over the wedding bed where her new husband still sleeps; the reunion of the two women after some years, Fereshteh in full black chadour standing with her two sons – an image that both encapsulates the change in her position since she last saw her friend and the radically different directions their lives have taken.
A melodramatic score used amateurishly, sloppy editing and choppy continuity, and poorly executed subtitles further detract from the effectiveness of Two Women. Still, the passion and the message blaze with a conviction sorely lacking from most more slickly produced contemporary films.