Step into a gallery installation by the Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat and you can be overwhelmed. She has gifts that leave her contemporaries looking blind, like when she turns a woman’s dark chador into a black hole of negative space against a bleached wall. In one of her most potent pieces, Neshat projects the gaze of a defiant woman on one screen, and a bunch of staring men directly opposite. You feel the whole of Middle Eastern gender politics playing out in a tight space.
And then you walk out of the gallery, dazed. The problem with Neshat’s frequently gorgeous Women Without Men, her debut narrative feature (made in collaboration with her partner, Shoja Azari), is that you can’t get up and leave. Instead, you’re obliged to sit through some amateurish grappling with historical portent. Set in a seething 1953 Tehran, this is the kind of film that shouts its plot developments from urgent radio broadcasts. Several loosely acquainted women—a prostitute (Toth), an unhappy wife (Shahrzad), a political dreamer (Toloui)—bear the weight of political and sexual oppression, but sadly, what feels subtle in Neshat’s abstract videos is explicit here. An eerie resurrection regains some good will, but we’ll have to wait for Neshat to catch up with the art of storytelling.—Joshua Rothkopf
Watch the trailer