The May Lady
dir. Rakhshan Bani-Etemad
Opens Fri Dec 29 at Grand Illusion.

THE MAY LADY is a film by the distinguished (female) Iranian director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad about a (female) filmmaker who is assigned to find "the exemplary mother" and make a documentary about her.

If this were an American film, I would cuff the filmmaker--the one making the outer film--on the ear. I'd like to believe no contemporary American movie would dare feature a search for "the exemplary mother." That plot device wore out its welcome early in the 1950s, especially with the denouement that every mother is, oh please, in her own way, exemplary--from which Bani-Etemad does not shrink. It matters not in the least that Bani-Etemad is herself a woman; but because she is Iranian I feel compelled to stay my wrath.

In part it's those damned veils. Anne Hollander, a philosopher of clothing, says, "To present-day [non-Islamic] eyes, expressions of extreme female modesty seem subversive, a stumbling block to the sane ordering of human affairs." They sure seem that way to me. But Islamic women do not necessarily agree. Many Islamic feminists regard the veil as a convenient convention. Some argue forcefully that there is nothing a non-Islamic woman can wear--nothing--that says what the hijab, the veiling, says: "Treat me as a mind to think with and hands to work, not as a body to admire or criticize."

I felt I was doing pretty well at not freaking out over the veils in this movie. Because all the women were veiled, I started noticing the variety of the veils, getting into their expressive potential (which my Islamic informants hadn't mentioned).

And then came a scene in which the chief character had washed her hair and was drying it with a towel, a towel that she kept draped over her head, rubbing her hair through it, a towel that never for an instant lost the shape of... the veil. Its--what? Its shelter? Its custody? As I grasped what I was seeing, and how little I understood it, I felt the breath go out of me. Could this movie have been exhibited in Iran if she had flipped forward and toweled her abundant hair openly? So much for my ability to insert myself into another culture. I was sickened.

So let me say that the parent in The May Lady is seen as specifically female, not as generally human, and let me say also that it would be insolent of me to assert that the movie should take a broader view. If I want to see the position of Iranian women as a metaphor for the human condition, that's my lookout; they don't have the luxury of seeing themselves as metaphors for anything.

Minoo Farshchi, as the filmmaker, and Mani Kasraian, as her (I'm guessing 19-year-old) son, play a duet of affection, resentment, laughter, muddle, and pride. I have seldom seen more convincing family intimacy onscreen. Farshchi wants Kasraian to validate her choices, especially the ones she makes for his sake. Kasraian knows he's ridiculous for taking offense at her having a life of her own, but he cannot contain himself. As long as the two of them were on together, I was content. The scenes of Farshchi's professional life, on the other hand, left me cold, and her motherhood interviews seemed shallow--except for one.

I can't read Farsi script, so I can't identify the actress who plays Toobah, the one indelible interview subject. I'm guessing from the order of the cast names that she's Golab Adineh. I'll know her when I see her again. A short, round woman with Pillsbury Doughboy features, she is so far from our ordinary idea of great acting equipment that her eruptions of joy, rage, and sorrow seem semi-miraculous. Her character is a factory worker trying to raise her children on her own and failing at it. She screams. She rips at her clothes. She screeches at the filmmaker. She is driven almost insane; no, truly insane by the contradictory demands on her, by her love and her hatred for her children. Her task is too hard; she cannot do it, she cannot stop from doing it. In her rage and in her wild humor, she seemed to me the most clear-headed person in the movie, the one I'd most want, if not as a mother, as a sister.

Barley Blair is the pseudonym of a little old lady who is, um, you know, like, embarrassed at how seriously she takes all this stuff.

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