Veiled intent

Day I Became a Woman explores female oppression in Iran

At the tender age of 9, when children in other cultures might finally take the training wheels off their bikes or graduate to books with no pictures, Havva (Fatemeh Cheragh Akhtar) is gowned in a chador — the veil that will form a barrier between the world and her gender for the rest of her life. Like the last day of summer, some transformation from idyllic times is underway in this painful vignette from Marzieh Meshkini's three-part film The Day I Became A Woman.

But the real melancholy and drama of this story is how oblivious Havva is to the gravity of that change as she prepares to say goodbye to her male playmate Hassan (Hassan Nabehan) and enter the segregated world of women. To Western eyes — and especially Western women's eyes — the scenario looks nothing short of horrific, a handmaid's tale of women who have the appearance of black, blank spots in the landscape, invisible and empty in their black chador against the pale, rocky terrain and blue sky.

The stories in Meshkini's film have the gravity of biblical allegory, but in this case, allegory written by Virginia Woolf or Margaret Atwood. It's ironic that the film's script was in fact written by the director's husband, noted Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. What he lacks in experience, Makhmalbaf appears to make up for in empathy. Perhaps looking from outside at the plight of his veiled and limited countrywomen gives him more expressive ability. He invests these stories with a sticky, dire, semi-apocalyptic tone, from the whir of bicycles sounding like a cloud of locusts, to the percussive score, like Satan himself pounding the skins.

Symbolism is heavy in The Day I Became a Woman, in stories which leave a palpable melancholy in their wake. Even when the woman, Ahoo (Shabnam Toloui), in the film's second vignette flies across the landscape on a bicycle, the action is not synonymous with freedom and release as it might be in another circumstance. Instead, Ahoo is a woman pursued, and her sense of escape is as deceptive as a mouse in a maze. Draped in black and long pants, even in this sweltering seaside landscape, Ahoo is physically constrained beside the shirtless men or men dressed in white linen who ride next to her on horseback, demanding that she return home. Ahoo and her fellow women cyclists suggest something inhuman and frightening as they move across the barren seashore in a tight formation, their drapes flying, like a flock of ravens.

On the basis of these two scenarios, The Day I Became A Woman is weighty, bitter, transfixing stuff. It's only in the film's final episode that the realism of the first two stories takes a turn for the fantastic — even lighthearted — in a third segment that makes it hard to appreciate the stories as a satisfying trio.

As if taking her final-hour revenge on her culture, an old woman, Houra (Azizeh Seddighi), with a stocking full of cash buys all the things she's always wanted: a refrigerator, a stove, a wedding dress, plastic plants, a tea pot, all of which she has a group of little boys assemble for her on the beach into a strange evocation of a fully-appointed apartment. But this appliance binge has an air of futility about it — these "things" are a poor exchange for what she desired and never had. She asks several of the boys if they'll be her son, and the implication is clear. In a patriarchal society, a male heir is the ultimate reward. Without one she is only accumulating empty, meaningless things.

As much as the stories are about the dismal status of women in fundamentalist religion, they are also about the entrapping quicksand of time. Each episode feels like an hourglass with the sand running out as Havva regards the stick her grandmother gives her, whose shadow will indicate when she must return home and assume her new role as "woman"; or Ahoo, given until the count of 10 to decide to come back to her husband; or the old woman, obsessively accumulating at the end of her life.

The film is as rewarding for its look into what the sensation of such a limited life might be and for a more superficial glimpse of the cultural landscape. With its beautiful, barren stretches of countryside and its strange mix of epic, white architecture and giant rocks spouting waterfalls that suggest Las Vegas after the apocalypse, this Iran is a bizarre potluck of consumerist glitz and primeval beauty.

These potent scenarios not only show the actual restrictions on women in fundamentalist cultures but the cages they are asked to form in their consciousness that go far deeper, and which the director and her husband do real justice.??