At the heart of Women Without Men is a luminous orchard. It seems to have a will of its own, and in that regard it may remind you of the sentient sci-fi planet in Tarkovsky's Solaris, or even the forest of apple-throwing trees in The Wizard of Oz. The orchard is a place of visions, of strange encounters. It shelters, and it lashes out. At a climactic moment, a tree from it inexplicably crashes through a window of the house nearby. There had been no wind, someone observes.
Directed by the video artist Shirin Neshat and her partner Shoja Azari, Women Without Men dwells mournfully on Iran -- its political agonies, its strained relations with the West. Set against the backdrop of the U.S.-backed 1953 coup, the film meditates on four Iranian women who are, in various distressing ways, humiliated by men. The women's lives intersect, and each one eventually makes her way to the orchard.
The orchard and house are presided over by Farrokhlagha (Arita Shahrzad), a bourgeois matron who takes refuge there after her husband, a military officer, threatens to find another wife. Zarin (Orsolya Tóth) stumbles into Farrokhlagha's orchard after fleeing a depressing life as a prostitute. In the film's most stunning sequence, women and little children at a public bath look on as Zarin scrubs her skin until it bleeds.
There also is lovelorn Faezeh (Pegah Ferydoni), who is trying to make sense of baffling, shattering events in the life of her friend Munis (Shabnam Toloui). At the beginning of the film, Munis listens closely to news reports on the radio as her angry brother threatens to brutalize her. She is not married, and he is ashamed. Something tragic and mysterious soon happens to Munis, and in later scenes she is out in the streets amid convulsive political demonstrations.
Women Without Men is based on a novel by Shahrnush Parsipur, who was imprisoned in Iran for her writing. This is the debut feature of Neshat, who is best known for her video installations -- Friday's screening at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art coincides with the opening there of her work Rapture. Women Without Men is a more conventional film than, say, Empire by Andy Warhol, another fine artist turned moviemaker. But the logic of Women Without Men is dreamlike, and there are stark ambiguities. Even so, the performances are sympathetic, and the period detail is exacting.
And there are moments of arresting beauty, as when Farrokhlagha, wearing pearls, sings to a group of rapt partygoers. Earlier we have learned that she sang and wrote poetry when she was younger, and her middle-aged regret is one reason the scene resonates with powerful sadness.