Review: The Patience Stone (2013)

Directed by – Atiq Rahimi
Written by – Jean-Clade Carrière
Based on the novel of the same name by Atiq Rahimi
Starring – Golshifteh Farahani, Hassina Burgan, Massi Mrowat, Mohamed Al Maghraoui & Hamid Djavadan

Atiq Rahimi’s adaptation of his own novel, The Patience Stone, is a powerful and occasionally haunting drama brimming with raw authenticity. Set in a war-torn region of the Middle East (presumably Afghanistan, though this is never specified), the film explores the role of Muslim women in this area. With its focus on the dangers of sexual repression and the hypocrisies of male-dominated religion it offers a refreshingly truthful and confident insight into a region of which many in the West have no actual knowledge outside of the nonsense they read in the media. If only to combat stereotypes, this is a film that definitely needs to be seen.

The Patience Stone is, despite its broad approach to issues that are often deeply polarising, a personal and intimate film. It tells the story of an unnamed woman (played by Golshifteh Farahani) who embarks on a metaphorical journey of self-discovery when her husband (Hamid Djavadan) falls into a vegetative state after being shot in the back of the neck. As a bitter war wages outside her home, the woman must juggle the care of her family with her desire for freedom. With no option but to remain in this deadly region, she begins to use her husband as a sounding board, telling him her deepest secrets and desires safe in the knowledge that he can’t move or respond.

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Despite its broad approach to issues that are often deeply polarising, this is a film which explores its issues in a personal and intimate way. We spend much of the film in the company of nobody but the woman and her husband, yet it is through her “conversations” with him that we get our insight into the internal conflict that must consume countless women in the region, with the war outside mirroring the war going on inside our main character’s head. She detests the religious war, yet she is utterly devoted to her God, she is committed to her family, yet desires freedom from her cruel, uncaring husband, and she is sexually repressed yet has a firm understanding of her own sexuality. The film examines, through the open, honest dialogue of the woman, the treatment of women in Middle-Eastern society without ever resorting to exploitation or manipulation of the truth.

Though his film is rich in the culture of the Middle East, Rahimi masterfully opens it up and grants the story a striking universality. The conflict that the woman endures – both physically and metaphorically – is one that most Western audiences will never have to endure, yet Rahimi examines it in such a style that we feel more than able to relate to it. See, for example, the woman’s insecurity about her newly-acquired freedom. Every now and then she retreats from speaking her mind, concerned that she is possessed by a demon or being manipulated in some way. So deep is the indoctrination that she is never able to completely free herself from its grip; indeed, even when she has repudiated the majority of her teachings, she still clings to her belief in the Qur’an with a palpable sense of desperation. Rahimi doesn’t sugar-coat his film in optimism, rather he conveys just how engrained such dangerous, repressive beliefs are in this society. Yes, this woman might have discovered some form of freedom, however loose, from her past but the overriding feeling is that there’s still a mountain to climb.

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On another level, however, this is a film about hope. For all of its bleakness, it is a film that looks to a future in which women will be free from the oppression of men. Rahimi, having fled Afghanistan many years ago, approaches his film with realism and honesty. He exposes the hypocrisy of the men who use religion to consolidate a powerbase yet then betray the values of the religion they claim to uphold, while simultaneously seeking to assure the audience that change is possible. The woman overcomes great obstacles – a lifetime of oppression and repression, an all-consuming fear of God and a constant fight for survival in the face of war – to discover her freedom, which allows the audience at least some cause for optimism.

The strength of the film of course rests on the shoulders of Farahani, who delivers a powerhouse performance as “the woman”. She oozes intensity whenever she’s on the screen, and she carries the entire film with her portrayal of a woman who is broken and confused. The woman is a character to whom we can all relate, and one who exudes a powerful but conflicted determination. The film is at its best when it narrows in on her monologues; the sight of her revealing her secrets to her husband, knowing that he can hear her but no longer afraid, is deeply affecting, and for all of its minor faults (it does, for example, become a bit repetitive at times) it is a wonderfully commanding piece of drama.

The Patience Stone is a wonderful adaptation of a novel that I’m now definitely planning on reading. Its combination of the political with the personal is a huge success and its exploration of controversial issues is honest, unrelenting and immensely refreshing.