Tahmineh Milani's new film may be rough around the edges, succumbing to melodrama while illustrating her strident social message. But you might be strident, too, had you once been jailed and sentenced to death for challenging Iranian cultural assumptions (directors including Scorsese, Coppola, Lee, Leigh, Soderbergh, Demme, and Sean Penn rallied to Milani's defense with a "Declaration of Solidarity"). A veil of censorship frustrates Milani, but also inspires her to clever means of skull-penetrating overstatement and subliminal understatement.
Milani's latest, Unwanted Woman, comments on the ongoing Iranian hostility to feminism by following the travails and efforts of a 35-year-old high-school teacher named Sima (Merila Zareie). In the film's first scene, a student's theme paper describes parental injustice: "Parents have imprisoned us in a cage called family and are constantly hitting us over the head with a hammer called 'No.'" When Sima defends parents as wanting their children to become prosperous, a student asks, "How prosperous have you become?" Like a parent, the Iranian government has failed to raise its children with care.
At home, Sima's wayward husband Ahmad (Amin Hayaie) raises fresh concerns with suspicious sweet talk. Turns out he has a plan to bring in some money: he'll escort a young widow named Saba (Elssa Firouz Azar) from Tehran to her rural home. Smelling a lie, Sima insists that she take the trip as well, with their five-year-old daughter in tow (a prisoner implicitly doomed to a negative life?). Saba's situation is more tangled than Ahmad lets on; Ahmad's interest in her may be more than business-like, but Saba still knows what it means to be "unwanted" by society, just as Sima does.
Even as Sima's marriage strains to its breaking point, circumstances conspire to complicate the situation. A natural disaster finds the travellers holed up in a crowded inn, where news of a wife-murderer on the loose spreads like wildfire. In the middle of the night, Sima runs into the killer (Parssa Pirouzfar) and, comically sympathizing with his jealous rage, helps him to elude the authorities. "You did the right thing," she tells him, before returning—with pent-up anger—to her own caddish spouse.
Matters aren't comfortingly simple: Saba, her object of derision, is a product of male abuse, and the murder victim of her new friend qualifies as a third "unwanted woman," one who highlights the double standard of spousal affairs. A ceiling fan at the film's outset and a row of wind turbines, at film's end, signify an escalation of the winds of change. Sima's on a learning curve to speak her mind, and if her story doesn't translate perfectly to American stylistic sensibilities, the meaning still comes through loudly and clearly.