Facets is releasing two films on DVD by Iranian Director Tamineh Milani, The Hidden Half and Two Women. Both films are worth watching because of the political stir caused by The Hidden Half and the quality of the storytelling in both films.
Milani was arrested and faced execution for making The Hidden Half, a film that had been approved by government censors. Milani has been released, but the charges have not been dropped.. A change in the political winds could land her back in jail.
Two Women, Two Characters, One Name
In The Hidden Half, a judge (Mohammad Nikbin) prepares for a trip to the provinces to hear the case of a condemned woman accused of unspecified political crimes. His wife Fereshteh (Niki Karimi) tries to convince him to be lenient, but he dismisses her. What could a woman possibly know?
Fereshteh writes him a letter about her own past and packs it in his suitcase. The judge reads the letter, starting the flashback that tells Fereshteh’s story. Fereshteh makes two troubling confessions. When she was a student in the late 1970s, before the Islamic Revolution, she fell in love with an older, married man. She was also involved in the Communist party. In post-revolutionary Iran, Communist sympathizers are denied access to universities, and some are imprisoned by people like her husband.. Fereshteh ends her story with a plea for her husband to be lenient, because the people he’s judging are human beings, just like her.
The structure of Two Women is very similar. It is also told as a flashback to the late 1970s. Fereshteh (played by Karimi again, although not the same character) is one of the brightest students in her calculus class at the university. She becomes friends with Roya (Marila Zare’i), whom she tutors. Her life is ruined in turns by two men. At school, she is stalked by Hassan (Mohammad Reza Forutan), who says he loves her. He follows her everywhere, and even tracks her down when she returns to her home village.
Fleeing her stalker, Fereshteh accidentally runs over a child. Even though the stalker is blamed for causing the accident, her father is disgraced. He is grateful when Ahmad (Atila Pesiani) asks him for his daughter’s hand in marriage, erasing the disgrace. Fereshteh comments that “this isn’t the stone ages,, you can’t promise me to him,” but she eventually agrees to marry, on the condition that she can return to her classes when the university reopens.
Ahmad proves to be a jealous husband. He keeps the independent-minded Fereshteh under lock and key. He even hides the phone, suspecting that her calls to Roya are actually calls to a secret lover. In the end, Fereshteh is able to free herself only when these two men use their destructive power against each other.
Politically, Iran is a contradiction. It is a democracy and a theocracy. The president is elected by popular vote, but the chief of state is a cleric appointed by a council of clerics. It is sometimes hard for westerners to understand this culture. Armchair anthropologists can glean plenty of information from these two seemingly simple stories.
In The Hidden Half, the judge’s failure to ask his wife about her past even though they have been married for 20 years, shows an unusual communication gap between husband and wife. In Two Women, Milani shows just how much power a man can wield over his wife. Divorce is legal in Iran, but only a few circumstances allow it, and Fereshteh’s emotional abuse doesn’t qualify.
The Hidden Half also shows how sensitive the post-revolutionary government can be. Although Fereshteh’s involvement with the Communist party was minimal, the government was willing to take away much of her freedom, and her husband is still passing judgment on former students who held unpopular political beliefs.
These films open up Iran to the Western viewer. Iran becomes a real place, populated by real people. Calling Iran “evil” becomes much harder with some understanding of its people, but calling Iran “free and democratic” is just as hard.
Picture and Sound
Although the colors are unfaded and the widescreen format is preserved, there’s not much else good to say about the picture on these DVDs. The prints are often scratched and dirty, and Two Women even has a few frames of film leader left between reels. The production company keeps flashing its web address in the lower right-hand corner, as though the films were being shown on cable TV.
But the most egregious problem with the DVDs is that they use hard-coded white subtitles. Important expository dialogue is completely lost in The Hidden Half because the subtitles are unreadable against a white background. Even pausing the picture and scooting up to the TV screen didn’t help. And because the titles are hard-wired, you can’t change languages or turn them off.
The sound is recorded in mono; still, I have no complaints about it. Both movies are almost entirely dialogue, and since I have to read the subtitles anyway, sound plays a very small part in the overall presentation.
Neither of these DVDs has any extra features other than chapter stops and an advertisement for the production company.