Set within the confines of an Iranian correctional facility from 1983 to 2001 Zendan-e Zanan a.k.a Women's Prison (2002) is a film that will leave a bitter taste in the mouths of those accustomed to seeing their cinema with a happy ending.
Mitra (Roya Nonahali) is serving time with the understanding that she must pay for her wrongdoings. Day after day she mingles with prostitutes and political prisoners (!) absorbing their stories, understanding their crimes. Occasionally she would clash with one of the wardens confronting her about the harsh living conditions in the prison.
After the Islamic revolution of 1979 a new warden (Roya Taymourian) is sent to the correctional facility where order must be reestablished. Many of the vocal and troublesome political prisoners are quickly relocated to other institutions while those spared from the reforms face harsher living conditions. Mitra and the new warden become engaged in an ongoing confrontation where the more the warden sees from her captive the more she begins to doubt Mitra's guilt. After a series of controversial events Mitra is pardoned.
Hailed by critics and viewers as one of the most important and courageous films to be made in Iran during the last fifteen years (Variety) this is indeed the work of a filmmaker with an agenda. Deconstructing the very foundation of modern Iran (quite frankly the plot described above to me personally feels as an excuse to delve much deeper into issues which to this day remain of paramount concern in this country) where women's rights and political persecution have been long ignored with the blessing of state and religious officials Women's Prison does indeed achieve more than most other Iranian films I have seen in recent years. Certainly the fact that the picture was filmed by a female-director makes it that much more fascinating of a watch.
There are two aspects of this film that I believe separate it from the rest produced by Iranian filmmakers:
First, it is the careful observation of crime. Pay close attention to the lack of separation between political prisoners, adulterers, and murderers. In the eyes of those representing the law in Iran these are all criminals who must be punished with the same degree of severity.
Second, it is the depth of the two main protagonists, the evolution they undergo while standing on the opposite sides of the law! Manijeh Hekmat, the director of Women's Prison, has achieved a degree of transparency here which surprises to say the least. As I mentioned earlier despite of the fact that it is Mitra's fate Women's Prison is concerned with the actual message Manijeh Hekmat delivers has a much different tone. The audience is given a chance to witness the renovation of a society where crime as well as justice come in some strange shapes and forms.
How Does the DVD Look?
To be honest I have no idea what the original aspect ratio of this film is. What we have here however is a letterboxed presentation in an aspect ratio of approx. 1.74:1 which I am going to guess is correct. This being said the print isn't that good looking! I am not going to blame First Run for it entirely as the film elements they had to operate were likely of average condition to begin with. Still, I see some notable '"ghosting" as well as occasional specks and scratches. Furthermore, colors are rather faded and dull (perhaps intentionally so) and during a few key scenes I noticed some mild flickering. To sum it all up this is certainly a viewable disc but it is also far and away from the standards we have come to regard as the norm.
How Does the DVD Sound?
The film comes with a basic Persian DD 2.0 track and fixed English (yellow) subtitles. I did not detect any issues of concern here and as far as I am concerned the audio presentation serves the film adequately enough.
Aside from the director's biography (in text format) and the obligatory gallery of trailers for other Global Lens releases there is nothing else to be found here.
I found this film difficult to watch! Yet, it is an important piece of cinema that further reaffirms my conviction that Iran is a country of many controversies. I applaud Manijeh Hekmat for the courage and determination to shoot a film with so much heart!!