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Drive, She Said

A wife, a mistress, and a two-timing husband confront each other in Tahmineh Milani's Iranian drama 'Unwanted Woman'

By Richard von Busack

AFTER HAVING MADE some particularly heinous picture—a Gigli, for example—directors sometimes describe their subsequent shunning by agents, producers and studios as time spent in "movie jail." Iran's Tahmineh Milani is one of the few people really entitled to use the term. For two weeks in 2001, Milani was jailed by the Tehran Revolutionary Court for making the film The Hidden Half, a drama about the overthrow of the Shah and how, unfairly, the women who participated in the rebellion found themselves the victims of a Great Leap Backward in women's rights. In a perfect world, Milani's directorial abilities would be as strong as her integrity and her resolve. Unfortunately for her films, she works in a country where movies have a high standard for intelligence, beauty and subtlety.

Who is the Unwanted Woman in the title of Milani's newest film? There are two candidates: a good mother or a victimized harlot. Sima (Merila Zareie) is a teacher at a girl's school. Her 14-year-old students are taught in a crumbling, mildewed building familiar from exposés of California schools. At the beginning, one girl is reading an essay on the plight of women in Iran, and her fellow students roll their eyes in boredom—it's the last time a different layer of meaning will be offered until the movie's end. Sima returns home after a hard day's work to wait the arrival of her ineffectual husband.

Ahmad (Amin Hayaie) is that strutting cockerel every lone woman dreads. He's wrapped his Eastern male privilege in Western clothes: he sports a goatee, wears sunglasses and cowboy boots and carries an eternally bleating cell phone. He also seems to have a mistress, because he has a transparent story about a widow he must drive back to her rural village. Sima forces her husband to let her tag along on this errand.

On first sight, the widow in question is every wife's worst nightmare. The soundtrack music gives up a yelp of surprise at the first sight of Saba (Elssa Firouz Azar). She's young! She wears false eyelashes! She uses lipstick! But a man like Ahmad encourages solidarity between women. All three members of this triangle are stalled out in a remote town by a washed-out road and a lurking killer, wanted for a crime of passion.

The film's closing image is as powerful as a fine editorial cartoon, with a stalled car representing the dead-end politics of restricting women's rights. Did Milani work backward from this image? Maybe, because it's preceded by a long group therapy session at gunpoint, where buried feelings are shoveled up in chunks of exposition. (Saba: "I'm just an illiterate parasite who has lived in filth!") And there's an uneasy bowing toward the status quo in the depiction of the police who enforce the morality laws as doing useful work that protects women. Ultimately, Milani's technique is as obvious as a soap opera's. Still, who could disagree with her conclusions? As a line here says, "Don't be afraid of those who bray a lot. Fear those who are voiceless."

Unwanted Woman (Unrated; 103 min.), directed and written by Tahmineh Milani, photographed by Faraj Heidari and starring Amin Hayaie, Merila Zareie and Elssa Firouz Azar, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the September 14-20, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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