The main focus of the film though is the treatment of several Iranian women by the society in which they live, and their retreat to a magical garden without men. It's an awesomely ambitious adaptation of a famous novel of the same name by Shahrnush Parsipur (who has a cameo appearance as the brothel madam). It's not particularly successful, I don't like saying that, but I think even Shirin Neshat, who was present for the screening was not happy with the finished article, which took a very long time to film. She has simply tried to weave too many strands. The most successful story perhaps is of the young prostitute Zarin, who is anorexic and actually played very well by a Hungarian actress, Orsolya Tóth. It's no surprise to me that Neshat actually made a 20 minute short starring the same actress in 2005 called Zarin, which was very well received.
In the Women Without Men, Zarin, who runs away from a brothel is seen furiously rubbing her body raw in some public baths. She speaks not a single word in the whole movie, and that is the most effective condemnation of the society she lives in.
We can see some of the terrible attitudes prevailing then and perhaps now as well about women. Amir Khan (played very ably by Essa Zahir) at one point approaches one of the women (Faezeh played by Pegah Ferydoni) and gives her this line about how women are flowers who blossom and then wither. He then asks her to become his second wife; his first wife, who has withered, will "of course" become her servant. Khan has absolutely no idea of the level of misogyny he's communicating. One of the women is a general's wife, her husband ends an incredibly oafish rant with an order for her to come and eat some melon because he wants her to. In the movie we see a distillation of the unfortunate insensitivities to which a group of Iranian women have been subjected. It's important to note that it would be an overreaction to condemn Iranian male society en masse.
It's a very beautiful movie, the garden of the villa that the general's wife sets herself up in after a very scandalous separation, is really very magical and shot wondrously. I was worried that the movie was getting a bit lost in it's quest for aesthetic perfection, and thusly becomes almost soporific. The stories of the different women became a bit cacophonic, there was no unison message. It's got to be pretty unbalanced as well, men are almost uniformly comedy sketch buffoons, the women martyrs.