Sensual and horrifying, “The Patience Stone” plays like a mesmerizing, modern take on the tales of Scheherazade and a parable on the suffering of Afghan women. Afghanistan-born, France-based helmer Atiq Rahimi adapts his own novel set in a Muslim country torn apart by war, where a beautiful woman in her 30s cares for her comatose husband, relieving her burden by confessing her frustrations, dreams and desires. Featuring a tour-de-force performance by exiled Iranian thesp Golshifteh Farahani (“About Elly”), Eastern rhythms and Euro production polish, this opened-up chamber drama should engage niche arthouse audiences in the West without testing their forbearance.
The woman (Farahani) is alone with her two daughters and the body of her paralyzed husband (Hamid Djavdan) when their decrepit neighborhood becomes one of the frontlines of a war that seems to never end. Her husband’s brothers and his Jihadist companions have abandoned them, not caring about the fate of what they regard as worthless females.
Irony abounds. Although the husband was once a soldier, his life-threatening injury, a bullet in the neck, was sustained in a barroom brawl over an insult. He is wounded, but it’s she who suffers. She finds temporary refuge with her aunt (Hassina Burgan), a wise prostitute who tells her, “Those who don’t know how to make love, make war.”
The woman seeks to free herself from her suffering through solitary confessions to her silent husband. She tells him about her childhood, her loneliness and disappointments. It’s the first time in her life that she can speak so freely. She touches and kisses him, intimacies that he would never have been permitted under normal circumstances, although they have been married for 10 years.
When a stuttering young soldier (Massi Mrowat), an orphan long abused by those in command, takes her for a prostitute, she finds happiness in shaping his sexual education and teaching him how to pleasure her. And this, too, she confides to her husband, along with long-held secrets about the paternity of their daughters.
Working with renowned screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, helmer Rahimi (“Earth and Ashes”) successfully opens up his own Prix Goncourt-winning novel to create a strikingly cinematographic dramaturgy. We travel with the woman outside her home, through war-torn streets and also into the past of her memories. Although characters and places remain unnamed, so as to preserve universal aspects of the tale, viewers are still likely to understand it as taking place in Afghanistan.
The pic’s title comes from Persian mythology, the idea of a stone on which one might shed misfortunes, complaints and secrets until it is so full that it bursts. This notion and numerous religious references may pass over the heads of Western audiences, but in combination with the narrative’s emphasis on female sexuality, they will also severely limit the film’s distribution potential in many Muslim territories.
Lenser Thierry Arbogast’s supple, continuously gliding camerawork creates ongoing contrasts, between inside/outside, love/war, past/present. Beautifully lit costumes and production design provide pleasure for the eye.