Famously “banned” for more than a year by Iranian authorities who even forbid its screening to foreigners at the Fajr Film Festival in Teheran last February, Manijeh Hekmat’s feature bow “Women’s Prison” was finally unchained in Venice’s Upstream sidebar. Besides being a scathing critique of conditions in Iranian prisons, the picture is above all controversial for its solidarity with oppressed women, who the female director clearly implies are not to be found exclusively behind bars. Still, the official furor seems to come a bit late — two years after Jafar Panahi’s much more powerful “The Circle” aroused pity for its symbolic women cons on the lam and won Venice’s Gold Lion. Hekmat’s approach is in the grand tradition of prison tales, and the characters’ individual stories perhaps were felt to challenge society’s injustices too directly. While it may be long years before the film is released at home, it should be a popular fest title and stands a good chance of pickup in Iranophile markets.
Story, which stretches over 17 years, begins with the arrival of Tahereh (Roya Taymourian), a severe new warden, to the dilapidated prison where Mitra (Roya Nonahali) is serving a life term for killing her violent stepfather. It’s 1984, not long after the Islamic revolution, and the warden’s first priority is to repress rebellion, clean up the ward, and get the prisoners to cover their hair “with full hejab.” Flanked by two abusive male guards, the warden grimly begins a rigid disciplinary campaign in which Mitra the rebel becomes the chief target of her sadism. Fascinatingly, she has the girl’s long hair shaved off, and actress Nonahali is able to play a number of scenes sans veil, her bald head apparently a sufficient turn-off in itself.
The rubbish-strewn halls turn spic-and-span, the inmates are properly dressed and locked up, but the women’s grief and grievances don’t go away. Pegah (Pegah Ahangarani), a young political activist, doesn’t even find out why she’s in jail before she’s executed. The same young actress later reappears as Sahar, an honest girl who got involved with drugs, and later kills herself after an older inmate rapes her. Years later, when Mitra is a gray-haired oldster, Ahangarani returns in the guise of Sepideh, a street-smart firebrand who ends up being sold into prostitution in the Arab states.
To its credit, pic has a well-researched look and more than a little sociological interest. Unusual to Western eyes, the place is full of children, who are locked up with their mothers. During the Iran-Iraq war, bombs fall on the prison while an inmate is giving birth. Another woman is hanged and her young son handed over to the authorities. A flood of hookers spend a single night in lock-up for “non-Islamic conduct,” the prisoners are blindfolded before being lead to court, and gay marriages are held in cells by tough lesbian gangs. From the point of view of holding nothing back, Hekmat is extremely courageous.
The three main thesps are hard-edged, though the roles are all a bit too exemplary and lack the nuances that would make them seem real. The face-off between Mitra and the warden strikes a few isolated sparks without ever blazing into a full-fledged battle, and as the years pass, their feud becomes a war of attrition without winners.
Dariush Ayyari’s dark-hued prison ward is shot monotonously from a limited number of angles, emphasizing the place’s oppressiveness. No music is permitted to lighten the atmosphere.