“ Follow the breadcrumbs that lead to the violence” is a great directive for a parable about women trapped in an untenable situation. The trouble is that the viewer never is lead to why a religious community has turned so foul. Every female from toddler to old age has scars and bruises: one has lost teeth. Are all the men and boys in this Mennonite colony evil ? Certainly, not the effeminate school teacher befuddled and suicidal. Both script and production problems make “Women Talking” less than its media hype.
This being said, there is a lot worth watching. Greta (Sheila McCarthy) and Agata (Judith Ivey) ~the two family matriarchs~are Solomon-like wise in their thoughtful way of leading and listening. In an emergency hayloft meeting , (as the men have all gone to bail out their abusive brothers-in-crime) the women gather and hone their options to three: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. (The movie house venue where two of my sisters accompanied me actually had promotional pins labeled with these choices. We each selected differently in sync with our diverse personalities.)
The ensemble cast is wonderful. Each decade of life seems to be included. The sweet-voiced narrator relates, “ We did not talk about our bodies~silence was the real gapping horror.” She describes how they voted using pictures of a farmhouse, a knife fight, and a mule’s backside.
Though much is made of the gatherings little formal schooling, the dialogue is logical, philosophical , and spiritual in kind. Semantics are touched in the choice of “ leaving” and “fleeing”, and in the words “ forgiveness” and “ permission”. One’s frame of mind is considered in questioning whether forgiveness can be forced. An introspective thinker states, “ When we have liberated ourselves, we will have to ask ourselves who we are.” These scenes are courtroom-like in content ; yet, dotted with humor and passion. They are also the crux of the story: women talking.
Based on a true story of a Mennonite colony in Bolivia, the film’s setting in nebulous. Though the Southern Cross navigation lesson does tell us we are in the Southern Hemisphere. Director Sarah Polley and author Miriam Toews, both Canadians, underscore the feeling of invisibleness , where no one cares what you think or feel, and in some cases where you are.
Rooney Mara is lovely as Ona, a woman raped and pregnant with the subsequent child. Claire Foy is the angrier Salome. Her four-year-old daughter has also been raped. Jessica Buckley is equally dynamic as Mariche, who has an abusive husband, named Klaus.
There is laughter and humor as a reprieve from these dire circumstances. Horses named Ruth & Sheryl are used in allegory for wise and funny effect. Instead of being frightened of the gullies near, the horses gaze down the road and gain a new perspective. The group thinks leaving may give them the same long view. The women consider that they are entitled to be safe, steadfast in their faith, and think for themselves. Their dialogue gives them the opportunity to act. The fact that every man and teenage boy has left for town is odd, but propels the story.
In one scene during the debate, two teens roll their eyes in boredom, and rebraid their hair braids connecting them together. This is as normal as the straw strewn barn floor, but could also be a metaphor for lessons in power. The women must work together: “ process their pain into fuel”. Freedom, hope, forgiveness, love and safety are all discussed. Pacificism is spoken as the key tenet of their faith. Their circumstances leave them without power in a patriarchal society that has turned violent.
The cinematography is good in the use of sepias and light and dark. Slatted walls and children running through meadow-like fields are evocative of another time. I liked the communal feet washing scene. Frames of blood-smeared walls and dentures being removed and hammered on a table not so much. We are to understand that they were bashed out by a man. A three-year-old suffering from sexual abuse crying, “I hurt” was more effective.
The Monkees’ song “Daydream Believers” becomes a mean “ ear-worm” as the government census workers day-trip by with megaphones asking for a head count. No one seems to think the task is very important. In fact, in this film anyone living in the shadow of the cross is seen as less than. The idea proffered is that to reach one’s full potential a patriarchic community will not do.
I found heavy- handedness , but a less than crescendoed exit for the women. The many carriages lined up seemed like they would never move. The frames of women and children taking off through the fields felt more real. The exodus was confusing and long , rather than hopeful. Telling a baby that their story will be different was more like singing a hymn or a lullaby~ just a comforting sound.