The young woman talks to the man. He is motionless, he doesn’t answer. He can’t. He has been wounded in a fight with a bullet in his neck and is now in a coma. The woman, his wife, has been assisting him for weeks. Healing him as she can and following the mullah’s advice, to pray, asking her husband to get well again. This is the core of Atiq Rahimi’s The patience stone, selected as the Afghan candidate for the Best Foreign language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards. It didn’t make the five final nominees.
The unnamed woman (played by the Iranian-born actress Golshifteh Farahani) lives in a war-torn Afghan neighbourhood with her two children. At first, she doesn’t understand why she has to take care of what she feels is just a body that is barely alive. It belongs to that brutal and insensitive man she was forced to marry ten years before, when he was away, fighting alongside other Islamic militants. Slowly, her feelings change and she begins to tell her spouse her most hidden secrets and thoughts, for no apparent reason, at the beginning. “Why am I telling you all this? It’s because of you. You’re compelling me to talk,” she tells the comatose man. In speaking to him, she is scared and fascinated at the same time, or, as she says later, “delivered from a burden.” In the end, a dramatic event gives this expression a new, terrible, and concrete meaning.
The house on the frontline is not the only place the film is set, even though most scenes take place in the room where the man lies, and most dialogues are actually monologues. Apart from the young woman, the only other character who says more than a few conventional words is her aunt. She explains to the niece that the unconscious man has become a sort of syngué sabour, or ‘patience stone’: a magic object which – according to a local tradition – can bear the burden of someone’s life and suffering, before shattering to pieces, setting the person totally free.
Thanks to her personal ‘patience stone’, the young wife’s personality evolves. “There are thousands of dimensions in this character, like in the movie,” Golshifteh Farahani explained when presenting the film at the Abu Dhabi Festival. “She goes through a lot of ups and downs and challenges,” so the monologue is actually a “crescendo”, as the actress also said. Interpreting the unnamed woman was a big challenge from the beginning for the 29-year old Farahani. The whole film is, in her own words, a “one woman show.” When it ends, and credits appear on the screen, one sees this challenge overcome. The audience, through the main character’s eyes, sees both the different stages of her difficult personal life and the disquieting reality of Afghanistan at war.
While the woman assists her husband, there are bombings, attacks, and lootings and some people are cruelly killed. Nevertheless, The patience stone is not a film about the Afghan war. The words “Talibans”, “Americans”, or “Soviet” are never heard for more than half an hour. The historical background is left intentionally unclear, to a degree that even understanding which war the characters are speaking about is impossible. The militiamen who raid the man’s house call him “one of us,” while the other faction is referred to as “the enemy.” On the other hand, many scenes and dialogues (or monologues) outline various aspects of daily life, especially women’s conditions and family relationships.
The Patience Stone is in fact an allegory whose political meaning is broader than one may expect at the beginning: it is a reflection on the role of women in a society ruled by violence, archaic laws, and traditions. A description that goes beyond borders, as Farahani acknowledged: “Afghanistan – she said in an interview last February, at the eve of the film’s prèmiere in France – is just an extreme.” That is why she tried, as she explained, “not to locate this woman” but simply “to understand her as a person, like all the women, all the characters in history.”
To a certain extent, this seems to be true also for the film director. “I was tired of always seeing the same discourse on Afghan women, as submissive, as victims,” Atiq Rahimi told the press. “When I go to Afghanistan, I meet women of extraordinary might. They have a presence, socially, politically, culturally speaking – he explained – even in Parliament, it is the women who call out all the war criminals”. But Rahimi (born in Afghanistan but forced into exile from 1984 to 2002) wrote the book on which the movie is based after hearing quite a different story: that of a man who killed his wife and then tried to kill himself but fell into a coma instead. This pushed him to write a tale with a more general message, in order, he said, to show men “how women suffer, dream, feel, desire.” (D.M.)