“The Patience Stone” - Atiq Rahimi (2012)

The Patience Stone (Syngué Sabour, 2012) concerns a young woman’s self-realization in war-torn Afghanistan. Like many of the films produced in neighboring Iran, this French-Afghanistan co-production takes on the big issues of how one can fashion a meaningful life in difficult social circumstances. But unlike those comparative Iranian examples, which can only be made under severe restrictions that necessitate oblique references to the underlying social issues, the themes expressed in The Patience Stone are remarkably explicit for a work from that general region of the world.  The film is directed by Afghani filmmaker Atiq Rahimi and showcases the talents of Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani. The script by Rahimi and Jean-Claude Carrière is based on Rahimi’s 2008 novel of the same name that won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in France.

A distinctive feature about the film is that much of it is essentially an interior monologue reflecting the thoughts of the young woman.  But this monologue is not a narrative voiceover on the soundtrack, but is instead presented diegetically in the story, as the woman talking aloud to herself during moments when she is (more or less) alone.  (I’ll get to this “more or less” bit shortly.)  This monologue aspect makes the film very talky and is a weakness; but at the same time the woman’s sense of isolation is central to the story, and in this case we must accept the film’s central motif on its own terms.

The setting is a war-torn Middle Eastern country that to English-speaking audiences is not named but which will be readily identified as Afghanistan. The senseless savagery of war, wherein all sides are dominated by a pervasive and compulsive destructiveness, is evoked by the film’s blurring of just who is fighting whom.  This is not just the fog of war but the subhumanity of war.  There is no identification of the warring parties or what they might stand for, which is reminiscent of Miklós Jancsó’s superb anti-war film, The Red and the White (1967).

The young woman in the film's focus I will simply refer to as the “wife”. She has two young daughters and must attend at home to her husband, an injured guerilla combatant who at the film’s outset has already been comatose for fourteen days and with no clear prospects for recovery.  The ensuing narrative progresses through five stages.

1.  The Hell of War
The opening 25 minutes depict the horrific circumstances of the wife and her family.  Her comatose husband’s mother and brothers have run away, and her only other relative is an aunt whom she barely knows. When intense firefighting occurs, she huddles her kids downstairs in the compound’s cellar, leaving her husband lying in the apartment. On one such occasion, armed combatants enter her quarters and callously steal her husband’s wedding ring and watch from his inert body. On another occasion after her neighbor’s entire family is brutally slaughtered by guerillas, the wife decides she has to find the whereabouts of her aunt and seek to shelter her daughters there.

2.  The Patience Stone
The wife eventually finds her aunt, who turns out to be an independent and sturdy woman who supports herself by privately entertaining men.  Now finally with someone she can talk to, the wife tells her aunt about her compelling need to confess her inner thoughts to someone; and so she has even been confessing things to her unconscious husband. The aunt responds by telling her the legend of the patience stone.  It has been said that if you find this stone, you must tell the stone everything, all your secrets.  Eventually, her aunt tells her, the stone will shatter, and you will be delivered.  Moved by this legend, the wife returns to her own comatose husband tells him that he is to be her own patience stone and that she will tell him all her secrets.

3.  The Two Militiamen
Now two militiamen barge into the wife’s home and threaten her.  Asked by the senior militiaman how she survives without anyone else around, the wife lies by saying she makes her living as a prostitute.  He curses her but leaves her alone.  The next day her aunt tells the wife that her lie saved her life: the jihadis never rape a whore, she says – the pride of manhood for them only comes from raping a virgin. 

The next day the junior militiaman, who stutters so badly he can barely talk and is sexually inexperienced, comes to the wife’s apartment and unsuccessfully does try to rape her.  Afterwards, the wife is reminded of her aunt’s pronouncement: “those who don’t know how to make love make war.”

4.  The Stuttering Militiaman
The stuttering militiaman returns, and for the first time in her life the wife has an encounter with a man who actually wants to please her.  She learns that the stuttering man is also a victim, having been tortured and presumably sexually abused by his senior militia combatant. 

5.  Conclusion
Finally there are (perhaps somewhat predictable) climactic events that bring the story to a certain closure.
The focalization in The Patience Stone is entirely on the wife, and her discursive monologues cover her inner journey with respect to three themes or subjects: the role of men, the role of women, and the way to self-realization:

  • The role of men
    Aside from the stuttering militiaman, the rest of the men in this film are uniformly selfish and obsessed with their own sense of pride and personal achievement.  The only thing that matters to the men of this society is to maintain “face” and to be respected in front of other men.  I already mentioned the pride that the soldiers felt in raping a virgin. This preoccupation with “face” is not only ruinous to others but self-destructive, too.  It turns out that the wife’s husband was shot not in battle but by one of his own fellow combatants over an insulting reference to his mother.  Later, the wife recalls how her father’s obsessive addiction to gambling in quail fights (a variant of cockfighting) came at the expense of his own family’s welfare.  He loved his quails more than his own children.  And on reflection of her own earlier married life, the wife realizes that in their marriage her husband had only treated her like a piece of meat.
  • The role of women
    The aunt, who has managed to survive on her own in a mysogynistic society,  is a worldly-wise commentator and mentor for the wife.  At one point the wife overhears a religious parable broadcast over public loudspeakers and asks her aunt about it. The story tells how the Prophet Mohammad had confided to his wife Khadija about his fears of evil spirits and how he had been calmed by Khadija’s counsel. The wife wondered how the Prophet could be vulnerable to evil, and her aunt tells her that, after all, the Prophet was just a man, and it was Khadija’s role to help Mohammad “attain his prophetical truth”.  She goes on to tell her niece, “Khadija is the one who should have been a Prophet”. The wife returns to her dwelling inspired that she could someday  have a truly meaningful relationship with a man.
  • Self-realization through social engagement
    We all understand our world through stories – the ones we hear and the ones we tell.  In fact it’s when we tell stories that we construct our understanding of our world, and of ourselves, too. We need to engage with and talk to others, people with whom we can share our thoughts and arrive at a higher mutual understanding. The need is particularly great for men and women to talk together, to share their secrets, because each can contribute something precious to the other. But this opportunity for shared, intimate dialogue between the sexes is often barred by rigid social conventions. A remarkable feature of The Patience Stone in this respect is the degree to which matters of sexual intimacy are frankly discussed. This is not done for dramatic stimulation, but is a natural element of the story about shared intimacy.  The stuttering militiaman in The Patience Stone embodies this idea.  He couldn’t talk to people, and so he couldn’t engage.  In fact the third time he comes to the wife, he doesn’t want sex, he just wants to talk.  He needs this connection so that he can know himself – and become a man.
It is interesting that a number of outstanding male filmmakers, such as Antonioni, Bergman, Mizoguchi, and von Sternberg, have focused their attention on women’s psyches.  The men in their films are often weak or selfish, and it is the women who have real character.  Rahimi here goes further, though, and casts the men in this film as very far from possible redemption.

The cinematic realization of the story of The Patience Stone would have been enhanced if there had been more dramatized presentations, such as when the wife describes her father’s obsession with quail fighting. A few more such dramatizations would have added body and “flesh” to the narrative and helped move it along. As it is, there is an enormous narrative burden on the character of the wife. The beautiful and magnetic Golshifteh Farahani does well in the lead role, but the extreme demands for emotional expressiveness, which include fear, grief, anger, and terror, sometimes seem to exceed her range. Nevertheless, she carries the film, and it is hard to imagine anyone else doing as well. There is something intuitively fascinating about her persona that draws the viewer in.  We want to follow along what she tells us and know her more.

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