For centuries, poets and novelists have refashioned miserable real-life conflicts to their own poetic ends, from the harrowing lament of "The Trojan Women" (Euripides, fifth century B.C.) to the swoony romanticism of "The English Patient" (Michael Ondaatje, late 20th century). In the movies, such allegorical-minded inquiry is less common, and not simply because the medium is relatively young. Cinema, or perceived cinematic taste, encourages make-believe realism more so than deliberately abstracted metaphor.
The war-scarred village we see in the new film "The Patience Stone" is in "Afghanistan or elsewhere." While an unspecified war grinds on in the background, an unnamed woman, the mother of two girls, watches over her comatose husband in their barely furnished home.
For days, the man — considerably older than his wife — has been unable to speak, or possibly hear; he was shot in the neck by someone on his own side, the result of a fight after an insult to the husband's mother. The woman feeds her husband intravenously. She hasn't the money for real medicine. He lies still. The gunfire pops in the distance, and then sometimes very close.
Out of near-imprisonment comes a kind of freedom. The woman pours out her thoughts, her long-suppressed feelings of resentment and abandonment and desire, to this shell of a man who may or may not understand what she's saying. The title "The Patience Stone" refers to Persian mythology, a story of a magical stone that absorbs the confessional burdens of the speaker until it can handle no more. With dogged clarity, it is made clear that the husband is the stone, and his wife, finally discovering her voice, is the one testing the stone's breaking point.
Other, emblematic characters come and go: the local mullah, promising the husband's recovery; armed soldiers, one of whom loots the not-quite-a-corpse of his wedding ring and wristwatch; and crucially, a young soldier who believes the woman to be a prostitute. The relationship that develops between the woman and this representative of the country's tenuous future may not have the ring of documentary truth, but "The Patience Stone" isn't interested in that.
The movie, directed by French-Afghan writer and filmmaker Atiq Rahimi, comes from Rahimi's 2008 novel, a sensation in many countries. He adapted the text with veteran screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere. Without bursting its tightly confined setting, or violating the near-monologue form, the writers allow for just enough movement, in flashback and present day, to prevent "The Patience Stone" from requiring the patience of a stone.
It is a tour de force for the actress, needless to say. Iranian Golshifteh Farahani is wonderful in the role, keeping her emotions in check except for at a handful of key junctures, while the words pour out to the extent that the character, at one point, says to her mute audience of one: "Why am I telling you all this?" The woman's feelings at long last become unbottled, and her strange circumstances free her from the fierce patriarchy that has kept her muffled in spirit for too long.
Shot in Morocco and, for its exterior shots, Kabul, Afghanistan, "The Patience Stone" crisscrosses between the lengthy scenes in the home with scenes in the home of the woman's free-spirited aunt, a larger-than-life figure given to grand, dangerous axioms such as: "Those who don't know how to make love, make war." The movie is very strong on its own terms, though lacking, I think, the rough edges and true poetry of the great movies about war. It's a little on-the-nose. But "The Patience Stone" has Farahani, in nearly every shot, and in its meticulously paced way her movie-long confessional is something to see.
"The Patience Stone" - 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for sexual content, some violence and language)
Running time: 1:42