A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Afghanistan independence, 1919
On this day in 1919, King Amanullah Khan declared Afghanistan a sovereign and independent country. His country had been at war with the British since May of 1919, in what is now called the Third Anglo-Afghan War. Until it started, the British had been attempting to keep Afghanistan out of the Russian military sphere by paying the Afghans huge amount of money. However, the Afghans had been taking money from the Russians too, playing one side off against the other. The First World War had changed everything. For one thing it had made Afghanistan realise that with the British at war and the Russians busy with a revolution, it could be an independent country in its own right. After the assassination of the pragmatic Habibullah, his successor Amanullah sought to enhance his claim as Amir against Habibullah’s brother, Nasrullah, by invading British India. The British won the conflict, but with twice the number of men lost. In the peace treaty that was signed between them, the British gained assurances that the border between Afghanistan and India, the Durand Line, was settled, and also stopped paying a subsidy to Afghanistan. Afghanistan gained its independence.
The Patience Stone (2012, dir: Atiq Rahimi)
What do women know that men never know? That’s the story behind The Patience Stone, a confessional drama based on the Persian tale about a stone you can confide in, happy it will never tell a soul what it has heard. Here the stone is a man, but he’s comatose and so has no idea that his wife is pouring out her heart and soul to him, partly to pass the time, partly to assuage the fear she feels at being trapped in an Afghani village being torn apart by factional fighting, partly through frustration. At first she doesn’t say much, talks about the passing of the day, trivial jobs that need doing, his condition, their marriage… and once she hits this point it is as if a small dam has been breached and it all starts coming out.
One woman talking to herself, it could easily get boring, except that writer/director Atiq Rahimi builds these soliloquies carefully, so they become increasingly frank, increasingly shocking, and they also start to cohere into the story of the woman’s life: how her sister was given away by her father to pay a gambling debt; how when her husband was away his brothers would secretively watch her bathe and would masturbate. And Rahimi punctuates the soliloquies with two visitations. The first is by the woman’s aunt, a more worldly woman, the full extent of whose worldliness won’t become apparent until much later on in some shock reveals. The second is a group of soldiers who blunder in looking for spoils of war and find a beautiful woman. And she, to protect herself, tells them she is a prostitute, knowing that being unclean in their eyes might save her from gang-rape. It works. But later, guilty and stuttering, the youngest and most handsome of the men returns with money clutched in his sweaty hand, to conduct some business.
In stark contrasts Rahimi reveals what the life of the woman (played by Golshifteh Farahani, her character credited only as “the woman”) is like without the presence of men, and then again with it. No polemic is necessary, all is entirely clear. She is a chattel.
There are more revelations and more twists than you might think possible from what is almost a one-handed, single-person film. But the drama is bolstered by Farahani’s careful paying out of this woman’s character, revealing her nature bit by bit, her luminous eyes and darting voice managing more expression than most actors can manage with everything at their disposal. You can see both why she is a sensation in Persian-speaking parts of the world, if only to audiences – she’s officially a persona non grata in Iran, thanks to films like this. The cinematography by Luc Besson’s DP, Thierry Arbogast, helps too, adding a slick sheen to locations that, to western eyes, are usually associated with dust, dirt and the squalor of the developing world. It confounds expectations, in other words. Which, in many ways, is the whole purpose of the film.
- Golshifteh Farahani’s sensitive performance
- The Moroccan locations (standing in for Afghanistan)
- Thierry Arbogast’s cinematography
- A festival and awards favourite
© Steve Morrissey 2014