A Talking Cure?
The Patience Stone – dir. Atiq Rahimi, Afghanistan/France/Germany/UK, 2012, 102 minutes
The Patience Stone is a monologue amid scenes of a town ravaged by war, spoken by a character in battle-weary Afghanistan who is identified after 102 minutes of grueling drama as “the woman”.
She is caring for her husband, who is much older than she is, in a town under siege from fighting troops. The bearded husband has been shot (it turns out, by a fighter on the same side, after that fighter insulted the man’s mother), and he lies in a room, seemingly unconscious, as tanks pass through and armed Taliban massacre whomever they can find. Since the woman is tapped out at the pharmacy, the only affordable treatment is a solution of water and sugar that runs into his mouth from a tube. Think of an Afghan Mr. Lazarescu.
As jihadists kill innocents, the woman is one exception, as are her two daughters, safe with other family. She drives away one fervent guerrilla when she tells him that she is a prostitute. All he does is curse her as he spits on her. His stuttering young comrade, seeing an opportunity, offers the woman money for a job that she can’t refuse. It’s war. Like so much mistreatment in the film, the forced sex is time-honored.
Written and directed by Atiq Rahimi, who was born in Afghanistan, and featuring the Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, The Patience Stone is adapted by Rahimi and the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere from Rahimi’s novel by the same name that won the Prix Goncourt, the top literary award in France.
The brutality that comes along with poverty and religious extremism may surprise some American viewers. It shouldn’t. Even with US troops still in Afghanistan, there’s barely any news of the place in the US press, not even from the politicians faulting Barack Obama for weakness in the war on terror, and certainly not much news about the Afghans there, much less Afghan women. Reviews of the film now playing at Film Forum will have to do for now.
If the endless suffering of women in war and under phallocentric religions weren’t enough to make this story an age-old tale, there is the title. The Patience Stone. The woman learns from her aunt, (another woman, who else?), that a patience stone is an object that bears sorrows. As a woman speaks about her life, the stone gets heavier. Eventually the stone breaks, and her sorrows are lifted, or so the legend tells us about this twist on the storytelling-as-liberation Scheherazade myth. Here, the husband who mistreated his wife becomes the stone. The film’s ending bears out the legend’s promise.
This film could be a radio play, or a one-woman work of declamation. The production design, if you can call it that, involves a spare interior, a ruined passage or two between buildings, and a cutaway shot from time to time to a town with a hardscrabble hilliside, in Morocco, where The Patience Stone was filmed – spare, even by the standards of low-budget theater.
But Rahimi has a versatile instrument with a spectrum of nuanced sadness in the face of Golshifteh Farahani. She can embody victimhood, with abuses falling upon her like the fire that tears her village apart, and she can be improbably empowered as testimony of her own misfortunes infuses her immobile patience stone with stories of pain. Farahani is a deftly subtle actress, which is what a film like this needs.
Like every film about Afghanistan (especially one with a stunning Iranian actress, demonized in Iran and much of the Islamic world for baring her breast in a French video), The Patience Stone is no doubt circulating in Afghanistan and Iran in pirate copies. Taliban thought police who enforce Islamic propriety will confiscate copies. So will cops in Iran. No doubt they’ll watch it again and again to look at Golshifteh Farahani, just as the soldiers in the film do. Potential patience stones?.