Life and death circle each other restlessly and then furiously in the Afghan-set movie “The Patience Stone.”
Life takes the form of an unnamed beautiful young woman (the fine Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani) who, when the story opens, is caring for her wounded, much older husband, also unnamed (Hamidrez Javdan), an immobilized Mujahedeen fighter with a bullet in his neck and the slender tube of a medical drip bag snaked into his mouth. They’re simply two people inside an austere room. Yet, as bombs shake the walls and she places a bloodied compress on his head, they are quickly transformed into a time-tested, outwardly reassuring vision of a woman heroically ministering to a wounded, possibly dying man.
It’s an image that the director, Atiq Rahimi, an Afghan who has been living in France since the mid-1980s, soon deconstructs in this adaptation of his 2008 novel of the same title. Written with veteran screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrire (who has collaborated with Luis Buuel and Jean-Luc Godard), the movie has an elegant, initially attractive simplicity.
Once the bombs stop, if temporarily, the woman begins to speak, leaning over her apparently comatose husband and asking, “Can you hear me?” It isn’t a simple question even in most close relationships. Here while it reveals the woman’s uncertainty about her husband’s condition – he remains almost completely motionless, although at times his eyes are disconcertingly open – the question also conveys her enforced existential silence as an Afghan wife.
Once she begins speaking she rarely stops, filling the silence with whispered fears, surprisingly few sobs, an occasional punctuating cry of alarm and, increasingly, long-nurtured resentments. Abandoned by her in-laws, who have fled this unspecified war – the only fighters we see are Afghans – the woman has been forced to care for her husband and their two young daughters on her own. The money appears to have run out along with her relatives and options. The local pharmacist refuses to give her more medicine because she owes too much money, and even the water-delivery man has stopped coming. A few neighbors hover about, cowering with her and the children in a basement when the bombs fall too close, but otherwise she’s alone.
Rahimi opens up an entire world inside the couple’s modest house, filling its few rooms with enough air, sharp words and slow-boiling intrigue that the walls never feel as if they’re closing in on you. The near-constant dialogue keeps things moving, even when the characters remain still, as does a camera that repeatedly focuses on some new detail – a view from a window, a man’s portrait on a wall – that adds information to the evolving tale. Every so often both the camera and the woman venture outdoors, wandering into the forlorn, dusty streets among the ruined homes and emaciated dogs. After several failed tries, she at last arrives at her aunt’s home, where the story begins taking a turn for the melodramatic. (The movie was largely made in Morocco, with exteriors shot in Afghanistan.)
In its outline, “The Patience Stone” mirrors an Afghan myth (”The 70-Year-Old Corpse”) that appears in the book “Folktales Told Around the World.” The book’s editor, folklorist Richard M. Dorson, explained that the story – which involves a young woman being given to an old man in an arranged marriage – had been told by women “as a healthy expression of their stifled feelings in a male-dominated world.” That pretty much distills the fictionalized world represented in “The Patience Stone,” although Rahimi takes a rather more poetic approach to the same subject, using universals (Man and Woman) as proxies in a battle that, as the story progresses, takes on an abstract quality. Yet while there might be truths in some universals, it’s hard to forget that this tale has its roots in a bitterly real world.