We don’t know what year it is and only vaguely know the place, somewhere around Kabul, Afghanistan. The fighters shelling the town and killing each other in the streets are not Russian or part of NATO; they are Afghan and both sides have no problem taking advantage of, stealing from, and maliciously abusing our heroine. We don’t know her name, but she is in big trouble.
Played by Iranian-actress Golshifteh Farahani, the woman takes care of her comatose husband and her two young daughters. The nameless man was shot in the neck during a petty squabble and with no money for proper IV fluids, the woman drips a tube of sugar water into his mouth. Frequently, militia fighters come through to steal or threaten to rape the woman as they do not care what side she or her husband are on. One fighter even thinks the husband is one of their guys; then he steals his wedding ring and watch.
Out of funds, extended family to rely on, and options, the woman begins to talk to her motionless husband. This is not as easy as it sounds because in her world, a woman does not just talk to her husband. Through her narration, we learn how Afghan women are treated more like cattle than women. Sharing her inner-most thoughts and secrets with the man she only wanted to receive love from (a foreign concept to him) helps the woman to keep going day after nightmare day.
As she well knows, if her husband dies, she and her little girls will most likely die as well. Women cannot work in Afghanistan, and with no other family to provide for her, starvation or a life of prostitution is closer than she wants to accept. She cares for and sustains a man for pure survival, not love. Her determination only intermittently breaks down into tears and curses.
The majority of the film is set in one small room with the man lying still on the floor and the woman sitting with him or pacing around. When she talks about the past, we don’t watch flashbacks, we watch her. The screen presence required to maintain an interested audience for this is astonishing. Director Atiq Rahimi adapted the screenplay from his own novel of the same name and collaborated on the script with co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere. Carriere wrote for Luis Bunuel (Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, etc…) and has dozens of other famous credits to his name.
Recognizing the danger of staging almost an entire film in one room with almost one monologue, Rahimi shrewdly worked with one of the most adept screenwriters of the past 50 years. The dialogue is sharp, tense, and keeps our attention. What could easily feel soggy and sullen feels immediate and real. Also, cinematographer Thierry Arbogast (Leon: The Professional, The Fifth Element) found a way to effectively shoot an austere room full of vibrant color and sunlight even though there is just a rug and a shelf.
The Patience Stone is a grower. The more I think about it and replay it in my mind, the stronger it is. The film was Afghanistan’s submission for Best Foreign Film at the 2013 Academy Awards but was not nominated. Here is a story to listen to. It takes place in a war zone, but it is not about war. It is about a woman and her non-existent place in society. Audience members who possess the titular virtue will walk away from the movie with the most to think about.
Directed by: Atiq Rahimi
Written by: Jean-Claude Carriere, Atiq Rahimi
Starring: Golshifteh Farahani, Hamidreza Javdan, Hassina Burgan, Massi Mrowat, Mohamed Al Maghraoui