Six years after her controversial “Women’s Prison,” helmer Manijeh Hekmat returns with a strong, naturalistic drama about Iranian women searching for their roots amid questions about their country’s heritage. With a rebellious daughter repping the problems of contempo youth, a middle-class mother standing for the “burned generation” that came of age with the Islamic Revolution and grandmother symbolizing traditional ways, “Three Women” offers a compelling sociological portrait that should be appreciated abroad, though it will resonate more at home. International fests are likely to clamor for this finely acted pic, which ranks among the cream of the current Iranian crop.
Combative, 40-ish carpet conservator Minoo (Niki Karimi) is searching for college-age daughter Pegah (Pegah Ahangarani), who’s been away from home for several days and doesn’t answer her cell phone. Minoo is taking her senile mother (Maryam Boubani) to a doctor’s appointment when she makes a detour to Tehran’s main bazaar to confront a merchant, who sold a historically important piece promised to the National Carpet Museum. Minoo audaciously snatches up the carpet but ends up losing it, as well as her mother.
Meanwhile, Pegah is speeding along dusty desert roads when she picks up young hitchhiker Babak (Babak Hamidian), who’s part of a nearby archeological excavation. Spiritual Babak immediately recognizes Pegah’s existential crisis.
Divorced Minoo’s fruitless search for mother, daughter and carpet proves more revealing of her own life and her lack of knowledge about Pegah’s. An encounter with Pegah’s musician friends features a short number by underground alt-rock band 127 and perfectly encapsulates the disaffection of Iran’s young generation.
Although recent Iranian cinema is full of notable films where the primary action takes place in an automobile (Abbas Kiarostami’s “Ten” and Niki Karimi’s “One Night” come immediately to mind), none gives as accurate a picture of Tehran’s horrendous traffic and nonstop noise and bustle as “Three Women”; Minoo constantly shrugs off small bumps from the car behind her while driving and talking on her mobile.
Impeccable, docu-like lensing by Dariush Ayyari makes the characters’ experiences palpablewhether in city, village or desert. Some shots have an incredible beauty, such as a tightly framed one of a frustrated Minoo leaning against her mauve Jeep while the city’s sluice runs vertically below.
Leads Karimi and Ahangarani (Hekmat’s daughter) distinguish themselves with nuanced perfs that combine vitality and melancholy. Male roles seem rather one-note in comparison.
Although the open-ended script lacks the genre hook that made “Women’s Prison” more universally accessible, it pithily captures the problems of Iran’s generation gap.