At first, there is an image that has a strange beauty to it. The washed out blues and the strokes of white look like an abstract painting. But the further the camera pans to the side, the more we realize that we are facing a wall that hasn’t been painted for some time. Then an equally beautiful canvas with prints of birds that are heading to the sky appears. But it turns out to be a simple window curtain. Then, suddenly, the sound of an explosion that makes the water in a bowl tremble and ripple before a hand reaches into the water to soak a cloth. The hand belongs to a beautiful but nameless woman who washes her husband’s face and is trapped in a room that seems like her prison. This room becomes her shelter as the war outside comes closer and closer.
We are somewhere in Afghanistan where an older soldier lies in a coma and has only his wife to look after him. The monochromatic landscapes outside are filled with small splashes of colour, like the shining reds, yellows, and greens of the burqas which only allow the women in the streets to see a small window of the world through the grids of the fabric. The nameless town becomes more and more abandoned, the water deliveries stop, and more and more often mysteriously veiled soldiers enter the houses and pose a threat to the women who, in times of war, are a commodity of those who carry the guns.
War, disease, danger and hopelessness seem to be the dominant themes of Atiq Rahimi’s film at first sight, but beginning with the first frame of the film, the themes of beauty, liberation, hope, and emancipation run counter to the narrative that circles around the chamber drama of a self-sacrificing wife.
To talk about the beauty of an actor is hardly a very progressive or insightful instrument to analyse a film’s meaning, but in the case of The Patience Stone, the casting of Golshifteh Farahani (About Elly) as the woman, Hamid Djavadan, as the handsome but speechless husband, and Massi Mrowat as the beautiful young soldier is an important key to shifting the attention from the greater politics of war and religion to the politics of attraction, desire and the personal. Gender relations build the core of the film. The way the images of beauty are used to manifest, subvert, and play with them in the film, is a very interesting and sometimes controversial filmic strategy that serves to raise the film’s story to an allegory about the complicated interdependencies of the sexes.
The Patience Stone is based on the novel that French and Kabul-born director Atiq Rahimi wrote in 2008 and for which he was awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary award. According to Persian mythology, a patience stone is a stone that absorbs all the pain and suffering of a person and shields them from misery. Once the stone has absorbed all the bad, it liberates the person and bursts into a thousand pieces.
In the film, the immobile husband who is paralysed by a bullet in his neck becomes the woman’s patience stone and, in his inability to respond, react, or intervene, is forced to absorb a painful truth that had to be kept secret for many years. Starting with the grief about the entire family leaving her alone in the village, the woman goes deeper and deeper into her past and verbalises all her unhappiness and discomfort about the constant absence of her husband, his sexual ineptitude, and the dark sides of her marriage and her womanhood in a society that is brutally dominated by men.
We are witnesses to the fascinating reversal of power relations through speech as the now dependent patriarch becomes the vessel for the confessions and revelations of his wife, whose gradual liberation progresses in her monologues. Step by step, the firm social boundaries come to fall in the intimate interiors of their living room and even after the social order seems to be re-established by her sexual abuse at the hands of a young soldier, the woman has gained enough strength to resist submission.
At the end of the film we see a different canvas: a plastic window torn apart by the soldier who is looking inside. The view now reveals the sky but at the sides we can still make out the curtains with the prints of birds flying. It’s left unclear whether the birds will be able to fly away, but it is certain that they have, by now, realized their ability to fly and understood that there is beauty in the world.
The Patience Stone (Stein der Geduld), Afghanistan/ France/ Germany/ UK 2012, 102. min.
director: Atiq Rahimi, cinematography: Thierry Arbogast, actors: Golshifteh Farahani, Hamid Djavadan, Massi Mrowat, Hassina Burgan, Mohamed Al Maghraoui, languages: Persian, distributor: Rapid Eye Movies
Berlin screenings (all Persian with German subtitles): Fsk, Central, Lichtblick, Babylon Mitte