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30th ARIZONA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW! Female puberty gets warped by gender repression in writer/director Maryam Zahirimehr’s intriguing Forbidden Womanhood. Mahi (Shiva Sinaee) is a 12-year-old girl in a small village who knows absolutely nothing about the birds and the bees. Her mother explains that babies get made when a man gives gifts to a woman, who then eats with the man under the same roof and spends the night — all of this after marriage, of course.

However, by leaving the finer points of reproduction vague, Mahi starts to fear that she may have unwittingly gotten pregnant. She accepted some earrings from Bangaroo (Alireza Aminataee), an older autistic boy who would’ve been referred to in the cruel past as the village fool. Did accepting that gift get her pregnant? She ate her lunch sitting underneath the same tent as the handsome boy visiting from the city. Did that get her pregnant? When Mahi’s first menstruation occurs, her misconceptions fly amok. But when she tells her friend Sara about her worries, some awful gossip spreads through the village, and things get ugly.

Lovers of high art cinema need to get hip to Iran. The level of craftsmanship and innovation coming out of the country today is on the same level as what was coming out of Europe in the 1960s. Thanks to advances in technology making production more affordable, the talent that has been building up in Iran for decades is now spilling over. This is immediately and impressively clear in Forbidden Womanhood with the detailed close-ups that punctuate the action. Zahirimehr’s background as a photographer is apparent, as these striking visuals could have come from a gallery show.

“…Mahi starts to fear that she may have unwittingly gotten pregnant. She accepted some earrings from Bangaroo…”

There is a thematic richness achieved from the visual composition of every shot. The movie pauses for tiny moments, which increases the flow of the story as opposed to stuttering it. The image of an underwater doll with an umbilical hose feeding it is bound to become iconic. So are the masked bands of children running through the streets. The way these visuals build a childlike world that borders the adult is just one of the feats accomplished here. The movie illustrates how children fixate on odd things while grown-ups buzz around them. It is also a perfect example of how keeping information from girls as to what is happening to their bodies causes more harm than good.

The performances are excellent all the way around as well. Sinaee nails Mahi’s innocence without making her seem ignorant. The emotional turmoil she goes through is performed with a realism that should be commended. Aminataee’s portrayal of Bangaroo is stupendous and is never played for laughs, even though the opportunity is ever-present.

The only major flaw of Forbidden Womanhood is that Zahirimehr seems to assume the audience is completely aware of Mahi’s misconceptions as the story progresses. While it becomes apparent by her reactions what she is mistaken about, Mahi’s processing of the information isn’t as clear as it needs to be. This takes a lot of the emotional engagement out of a story with a lot of potential. It reminded me of watching Godard’s banned Hail Mary back in the 1980s, where the possibilities of juicy drama were replaced by visual ruminations about how genitalia looks like curled-up hedgehogs.

By the end of Forbidden Womanhood, I felt like I had watched an art film that I could appreciate on an intellectual and visual level, slightly less so emotionally. It is an ambitious feature with spellbinding moments. It is well worth seeking out as it is a great example of why Iran is red hot right now.

Forbidden Womanhood screened at the 2022 Arizona International Film Festival.

Forbidden Womanhood (2022)

Directed and Written: Maryam Zahirimehr

Starring: Shiva Sinaee, Alireza Aminataee, Farah Mesbah, Farkhondeh Rava, etc.

Movie score: 8/10

Forbidden Womanhood Image

"…a great example of why Iran is red hot right now."

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