The Patience Stone, adapted from Jean-Claude Carrière’s acclaimed 2008 novel Syngué sabour – Pierre de patience, seems like it would make an interesting play, but formally starts out as a mess as a film. The Patience Stone is about a young Muslim wife taking care of her husband after he is paralyzed by a bullet wound to his neck, while struggling to look after her children as their town is raided and bombed. This film struggles initially because of its structure, feeling too much like a play, as she pours out the stream of her consciousness to her husband, with these confessions seeming too obviously postured as monologues, and his presence functioning as an audience surrogate that allows her to break the fourth wall. And, as The Patience Stone already feels very stagey, it appears to be unaware of the visual power of film, opting for her to tell too literally what has happened and how she feels, rather than showing it. The photography and composition are off: the realism of it is incongruent with its tone of melodrama and the cerebral fantasy of its lead. Some moments truly register, in particular a metaphor of her husband doubling as a stone that she can tell her secrets to until it explodes.
Yet, after her sexual encounter with a stammering, young, virgin soldier (played with heartbreaking vulnerability by Massi Mrowat), the film eases into a more effective execution of what is developing, tonally. Rahimi becomes more assured in his visual imagery (after the young soldier has forced himself upon her, a pan of the camera following the money that he scatters before her proves to be a memorable shot), and corrects his formerly sparing use of Max Richter's wonderful scoring. Another shot of her after a second encounter with the young soldier has her facing away from the camera, ascending a set of stairs, running her hand against the wall until she gazes into a mirror, with the score booming to create a dreamlike, Wong Kar-Wai-esque beat. A late scene where she discloses a revelatory moment (a contrivance that, despite feeling predictable, seemed tacked on to me, as I expected it to remain only suggested) enables a powerful shared close-up of her husband, with her slightly in the background, and what follows is an enduring moment that rattles us long after the film ends.
What I appreciate most about an artistic endeavour such as this is its subversive approach to the representation of Muslim women in cinema: this woman’s emotional experience transcends the cultural values of what is morally proper. The first time we see her really smiling is after her recurring liaison, and it is for so much more than the pleasure of sexual exploration. To risk a venture towards self-realization is a huge danger to her, and to pursue this with such conviction of purpose means that she must outweigh the probable consequences of her actions. There are instances where her dignity and even her life are threatened (at one point, a commander who raids her home threatens to stone her on the spot, after she defiantly outsmarts him, claiming that she sells her body in order to turn him off from the idea of raping her). The second act's strength lies in the moments when she realizes that the security of a loveless marriage (even if her feelings for her husband blossom in unexpected tenderness) is inferior to acceptance of her newfound emotional clarity. A woman’s struggle for independence and freedom is rarely depicted this powerfully in Western cinema, and it is a freshly original experience to see this story expressed in a fundamentalist Eastern context.
Golshifteh Farahani anchors this film with a performance even more towering than what we saw from her in Asghar Farhadi’s L’avventura-esque masterpiece About Elly. It is a lived-in performance that does not have too many big “acting” moments, but never does her interpretation ring false, and does she ever deliver.
Bottom line, while The Patience Stone has some glaring flaws, it culminates in an explosive coda of sublime perfection.