The Patience Stone (Syngué sabour): Abu Dhabi Review

A luminous central performance from Golshifteh Farahani distinguishes an ambitious if somewhat monotonously wordy adaptation of a prize-winning best-seller.

Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani stars in Atiq Rahimi's film based on his own prize-winning novel about a woman's wartime plight.

ABU DHABI -- The concept of the 'talking cure' takes on a new dimension in The Patience Stone (Syngué sabour), a wordy but ultimately impactful second feature from the versatile Afghan-born, French-based author/director Atiq Rahimi. Based on his 2008 novel, which won France's most prestigious literary prize the Prix Goncourt, this tale of a woman exacting unusual revenge on her formerly abusive, now incapacitated husband revolves around beautiful Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani's spellbinding performance in a highly demanding central role.

But despite the full-blooded success of this key characterization, the picture as a whole doesn't quite pull off the difficult task of translating a first-person narrative into entirely satisfying cinematic form. Festival play has already been very brisk for Rahimi's follow-up to 2004's Earth and Ashes, likewise based on his own book, following a well-received Toronto bow and a European premiere at London. The Afghan/German/French co-production taking up top honours in Tajikistan's capital Dushanbe shortly after Farahani was named best actress in the New Horizons section at Abu Dhabi.

Stateside rights were picked up by Sony Classics in Toronto, but France looks the brightest prospect in terms of box-office thanks to the book's renown and the steadily rising profile of Paris-based Farahani, previously seen in Marjane Satrapi's Chicken With Plums, Asghar Farhadi's About Elly and as the female lead opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Ridley Scott's 2008 Body of Lies. The French release is set for February 13th, and a further boost would be provided were The Patience Stone to be nominated in the Foreign Language category, for which it is Afghanistan's official submission.

Farahani's involvement in Body of Lies, plus a tastefully nude photo-shoot for a French magazine, led to her exile from her homeland - a situation which The Patience Stone's audacious exploration of women's issues in repressive patriarchal societies, plus some unapologetically 'blasphemous' lines of dialogue, is unlikely to ameliorate.

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The vast bulk of the screenplay consists of extended monologues by Farahani's character - identified only as 'the woman' in the closing credits - as she tends to her much older husband (Hamid Djavdan) in their crumbling city-centre residence. They're on the front line of an unspecified conflict in an unspecified country (which may be Afghanistan) at an unspecified juncture of the recent past, this careful reticence endowing proceedings with a fable-like air that excuses the less realistic aspects of the narrative.

The Woman has clearly suffered much during her ten years of marriage - the wedding took place when she was just 17 - as we hear in what amounts to an extended autobiographical oration. The husband, paralyzed after receiving a gunshot wound to the neck, can only lie and listen. We don't even know if he can understand what he hears, as his wife pours out discontents and revelations of an increasingly extreme and shocking nature. 

Taking inspiration from a folklore legend, the woman decides to use her husband as a "patience stone," a pebble which can absorb a person's anguish up to the point that it shatters. Further complications are provided by the encroachment of the war into the neighborhood and even the house, bringing the woman into contact with a stuttering but startlingly handsome young soldier (Massi Mrowat) and inadvertently providing the penniless household with a vital source of revenue.

Along with Fernando Trueba's The Artist and the Model, which presents sexual desire from the perspective of an older male, The Patience Stone provides the year's second screenplay credit for living legend screenwriter Jean-Claude 
Carrière. Four and a half decades after Luis Buñuel's enduring classic Belle de Jour, the octogenarian once again examines the unusual circumstances which lead a stunning young woman toward the world's oldest profession, and which result in her husband being severely handicapped by a gunshot wound.

But whereas Belle de Jour's Séverine expressed herself mainly through sensual physicality, Farahani's nameless heroine here articulately vocalizes almost every thought that goes through her head. Rahimi and Jean-Claude Carrière's claustrophobically intense approach can't help but feel rather more theatrical and literary than cinematic, however, and a bit more opening-out might have been preferable as a break from the downbeat monotony of proceedings.

A little more space devoted to Hassina Burgan as the protagonist's intriguingly worldly aunt wouldn't have gone amiss either. There's no quibbling with the bold power of the climax, however, as the "stone" finally shatters and Farahani's character achieves the self-realization she's long craved in a sequence that attains a genuinely operatic intensity.

Venue: Abu Dhabi Film Festival (New Horizons), October 17, 2012.

Production company: Razor Film

Cast: Golshifteh Farahani, Hamid Djavdan, Hassina Burgan, Massi Mrowat

Director: Atiq Rahimi

Screenwriters: Atiq Rahimi, Jean-Claude Carrière

Producer: Michael Gentile

Executive producer: Hani Farsi

Director of photography: Thierry Arbogast

Production designer: Erwin Prib

Costume designer: Malek Jahan Khazai

Music: Max Richter

Editor: Hervé de Luze

No MPAA rating, 102 minutes