In “The Patience Stone,” based on the novel by Afghan exile Atiq Rahimi, a beautiful, unnamed young woman (the marvelous Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani) is first glimpsed tending to her much older, wounded husband of 10 years (Hamid Djavadan), also unnamed. Three weeks earlier this mujahideen fighter had been shot in the neck during a petty skirmish, rendering him immobilized in the couple’s crumbling home.
His wife must hydrate his eyes, and somehow procure serum despite being cut off by the local pharmacist for nonpayment. Even the water-delivery man avoids her.
This might at first seem as if it’s the setup for a heart-rending saga about the selflessness of love in wartime. But Rahimi, who directed the film and co-wrote it with Jean-Claude Carrière, is reaching for an entirely different experience. Although not explicitly stated, the film is set in Afghanistan (though shot mostly in Morocco), and its real subject is the subjugation of women in that country. As the young woman sits with her husband, her fears and resentments, and, above all, her anger spill forth.
The film’s title is derived from a magical black stone of Persian lore that reputedly absorbs the burdens of those who speak to it until it crumbles – freeing the speaker of her troubles. The husband here is, in effect, his wife’s patience stone. She tells him, “If only a stray bullet would finish you off.” And because we (and she) never really know if he is cognizant of what she is saying, her revelations to him are innately suspenseful. Will her retribution lead to his own? Who in this scenario will crumble?
Rahimi (who lives in Paris) opens up his spare novel from its spare confines. Although the film is predominantly set inside four battered walls, it also ventures into the streets, where an unspecified war is raging, and into a bomb shelter. The woman’s two young daughters are in the care of her aunt (Hassina Burgan), who has worked as a prostitute.
“Those who do not know how to make love make war,” she tells her niece knowingly.
The most daring aspect of “The Patience Stone” is its emphasis on women’s sexuality in a country where religious patriarchy exacts a horrible price. There is a scene in which the young woman pretends she is a prostitute to some soldiers who have broken into her home. It’s the only way she can keep them from raping her. (Rapists, we are told later by the aunt, want virgins, not prostitutes.) And yet, one of those soldiers, a stutteringly shy young man (Massi Mrowat), later returns to her, cash in hand, to lose his own virginity.
The sordidness of this setup is counteracted by the woman’s own needs and conflicts: She feels tenderness for this stricken man and also wants more of a sexual life than her husband ever provided. Her abject circumstances have brought out in her both a deep sympathy for the distress of others and a brazenness about her own wants. Because the film is essentially structured as the woman’s ongoing monologue, her thoughts reach us without mediation.
Rahimi does an acceptable job of keeping the action visually interesting despite the cramped quarters. Tedium sets in, ironically enough, when he “opens out” the action. The effect is like watching one of those filmed plays that keeps hauling us away from the stage setting in order to seem more “cinematic.”
It’s possible that, without Farahani (who is also living as an exile in Paris), “The Patience Stone” might have devolved into a stagey talkathon. Some of it is like that anyway. (The film’s ultimate value may be political, not dramatic.) The lead characters are designed to stand in for elemental forces – she is Woman, he is Man, etc. – and sometimes we lose the thread of humanity beneath all these high-toned abstractions. But Farahani provides so much empathy that the film transcends its pretensions.
Even Farahani’s gorgeousness, which is so extreme as to be distracting in this rubble-strewn landscape, stands out as a beacon. Amid these horrors, the young wife retains not only the frailty but also the incandescence, the sheer staying power, of beauty. Grade: B (Rated R for sexual content, some violence, and language.)