THE DAY I BECAME A WOMAN

Directed by Marziyeh Meshkini

Written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf

With Fateme Cheragh-Azar, Hassan Nabehan, Shabnam Toloui, Cyrus Kahourinejad, and Azieh Seddighi

***1/4

Distributed by Shooting Gallery Films

Opens April 2001



This year, all but  the most xenophobic American film critics have come to acknowledge the strength of recent Iranian cinema. I hate to sound like the kind of music "fan" who changes his mind about his favorite artists as soon as they become popular, but this enthusiasm over the current crop of Iranian films is starting to sound awfully knee-jerk. I also hate to make sweeping statements about the health of a national cinema, and I haven't yet seen all the Iranian films on last fall's festival circuit. (Three of them -  Bahman Farmara's SCENT OF CAMPHOR, FRAGRANCE OF JASMINE, Jafar Panahi's THE CIRCLE and Hassan Yektapanah's DJOMEH - will be released in the U.S. next year.) Nevertheless, the Iranian films I've seen so far this year (Bahman Ghobadi's A TIME FOR DRUNKEN HORSES, Majid Majidi's THE COLOR OF PARADISE, Tahmine Milani's TWO WOMEN, Ebrahim Hatamika's RED RIBBON and even Abbas Kiarostami's THE WIND WILL CARRY US) suggest that either the country's cinema is running of steam or that its current trendiness means that we're getting far more exposure to mediocrities than we would have even three years ago. Were TWO WOMEN made in Israel or Turkey, would its crude - if politically admirable - feminist polemics and creaky melodrama have even earned it many  festival invites, much less a small-scale theatrical release? THE DAY I BECAME A WOMAN, the most satisfying Iranian film of 2000, is far from perfect, but first-time director Meshkini  dodges most of the clichés bogging down her peers:  milking  poor children for cheap sentiment and didactically defending women's rights. Instead, its feminism is expressed  in a relatively subtle and nuanced manner.

Set of the island of Kish (where much of the population seems to be of African descent), THE DAY I BECAME A WOMAN tells three stories that eventually coalesce. Screenwriter Makhmalbaf, who's also married to Meshkini, re-works ideas from some of his early films: the portmanteau structure of THE PEDDLER and the metaphor of a seemingly endless bicycle race  from THE CYCLIST. (The first third was originally made as a stand-alone short,  then incorporated into a larger work. Although it was shot by a different cinematographer than the final two thirds, the film's look is remarkably consistent.)  While each story has its merits, they don't quite gel as a whole, and I was tempted to rate them as individual shorts, giving four stars to the middle third and three to the first and final parts.

The title applies most directly  to the first story, set on the ninth birthday of a young girl (Cheragh-Azar). In this case, becoming a woman means giving up a great deal: her right to walk outside without a chador, most of all, and her ability to interact easily with boys her own age. Not surprisingly, she delays this moment as long as possible, even counting the minutes until exactly nine years have passed since her birth at 1:00 PM.  While there's nothing glaringly wrong with this section, it's a bit bland - despite handsome cinematography - and generic. Like many Iranian films, it uses a child's predicament to  couch social criticism in terms that won't offend the censors, following a brand of allegorical neo-realism that's rapidly becoming  as dull  as  post-Tarantino neo-noir in 1996.

The first third of THE DAY I BECAME A WOMAN could have been made by any number of Iranian directors, but its second part best showcases Meshkini's own voice. To paraphrase Alfred Jarry, it could be titled THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES CONSIDERED AS AN UPHILL BICYCLE RACE. Set during an all-female cycling race, it opens with images of a man on horseback running alongside a large crowd of women, identically clad in all-black clothing. His wife, Ahoo (Toloui), is his target. Appalled that she would race in public, he tells her that he wants a divorce. Other men arrive on horseback to try to bring her into line, but she continues to resist, agreeing to a divorce rather than getting off her bike.

For all its overtones of Beat Generation machismo, the road movie is a remarkably malleable genre.  American films like THELMA AND LOUISE, POWWOW HIGHWAY, MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO and THE LIVING END have explored what it means for people other than straight white guys to be "on the road," while Wim Wenders, Theo Angelopolous, Hou Hsaio-hsien  and Jia Zhang Ke (not to mention Kiarostami) have played with  its tropes,  far from the American highways celebrated by Bob Dylan in the 60s.  Here, Meshkini leaves the naturalism of her first segment far behind, if not its allegorical intent. She brings a hefty dose of absurdism to the horse/bicycle symbolism (as well as the idea of negotiating a divorce in the midst of a race),  conveying the addictive appeal of sheer velocity - even towards a difficult, uncertain destination - from a woman's point of view. Without compromising its political intent, this section also introduces an element of mystery.

The final third of THE DAY I BECAME A WOMAN continues Meshkini's penchant for  absurdism, pushing it towards overt comedy. The most optimistic of the three parts, it depicts the  arrival of an elderly woman (Seddighi) on Kish for a shopping spree. Helped by local children, she buys practically the entire contents of the local mall, setting them up on the beach. This prepares the stage for the film's most beautiful imagery -  a bizarre Felliniesque vista of a stereo, TV, stove, washing machine and armchairs against a gorgeous blue sea - and a lovely scene in which the kids try on her makeup and use her pots and pans as drums. However, while Meshkini stayed away from  cutesiness in her first segment, she indulges it here. Consequently,  this section's humor feels forced and its notion of a woman finding fulfillment at the mall somewhat dubious, even if she  emphasizes her character's delight in finally being able to shop for her own enjoyment.

Eventually, the characters from all three stories interact in one way or another. Unfortunately, this feels like a strained attempt to bring closure to the film, while   addressing the prospect of female solidarity. Even so, THE DAY I BECAME A WOMAN's final two thirds bring something genuinely new and different to Iranian cinema. (The middle section recalls Monte Hellman's TWO LANE BLACKTOP more than any other Iranian film I've seen, despite its debt to  THE CYCLIST.) Some cynics dismissed Samira Makhmalbaf's THE APPLE as a mere product of paternalistic nepotism, but her father's investment in his family's talent seems to be paying off.