Screaming for Help, With No One to Hear - "Two Women" Review

By Lawrence Van Gelder The New York Times

Although it bears the title "Two Women," Tahmineh Milani's film is really about one. And her name is legion.

While "Two Women" is set in Iran, the suffering woman at its compassionate heart may be found wherever those like her are denied a right to education and work, are oppressed and abused by husbands, are stalked by violent, obsessive men and are denied recourse in court.

"I am a human being!" she cries in despair at one point. But almost no one seems to care.

Ms. Milani's impressive, unsettling, deeply felt film about a brilliant young woman trapped and reduced to hopelessness in a society that accords her no right to equality is said to have proved a sensation when released last year in Iran. "Two Women" may be seen at tonight and tomorrow in the 29th New Directors/New Films series at the Museum of Modern Art.

The women of the title are Fereshteh and Roya, who meet as university students in Tehran and become fast friends in the tumultuous period of the Iranian revolution of the late 1970's, when factions dedicated to the clerical forces of the Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini clashed with westernized intellectuals and liberals on campuses.

Although Roya, who comes from a liberal background, goes on to a meaningful career in architecture and marriage to a husband who is her partner in career and family, Fereshteh's life plays out in a hell bordered on one side by a knife- and acid-wielding stalker and on the other by a husband who reneges on a promise to allow her to continue her education, keeps her locked in their home, hides the telephone and flies into rages at the thought that she might want to resume her schooling, work, possess books or educate their children.

Somewhere in the middle stands Fereshteh's family, including a father who damns himself for ever having allowed her to attend the university and regards himself as humiliated and stripped of dignity by her role as the stalker's prey, though at times he can appreciate her profound unhappiness in the marriage he arranged for her.

As for the courts, they can neither recognize Fereshteh fully as the stalker's victim after one of his assaults results in the death of a child nor can they find grounds for divorce for a woman stripped of her spirit and self-esteem by the psychological abuse of her husband.

The story of Fereshteh, brought wrenchingly to life by Ms. Karimi, unfolds in a a flashback after she summons Roya years after their first encounter to meet her in a Tehran hospital.

The two women bond as architecture students when Roya hires Fereshteh to tutor her in math. Fereshteh, from a small town and a family of modest means, comes as a refreshing surprise to Roya, whose background is more elevated. Fereshteh is intellectually gifted. She can drive. She has taught herself English. She is self-confident and bold.

But Fereshteh's life turns bleak when she becomes the target of the stalker, who not only makes her life hell but also follows her after she returns to her family when an attack by him goes awry as the universities are being closed down.

The stalker vows to find her, and he does, chasing her on a motorcycle as she drives at high speed in search of a police station, until his bike and her car encounter a group of children playing in the street.

In the court case that follows, Fereshteh's father contracts a debt of honor to the man he persuades her to marry. The stalker is sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Fereshteh, too, will pass most of this time behind locked doors. One day, she and the stalker will emerge.

Originally Published April 1, 2000

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