The new Iranian film The Day I Became a Woman creates a flow of symbolism so potent, so transporting in its physicality, that its impact all but transcends its righteous liberal ”meaning.” In the most powerful of the film’s episodes, a young woman (Shabnam Toloui), clad up to her face in black, furiously pedals a bicycle along an endless sunstruck ribbon of oceanfront sidewalk. She is surrounded by other women, also on bikes, all dressed the same way, but they are merely racing, and she is flying — in escape from her own life, as the camera zooms and swirls around her to suggest a desperate passage to a new world, a world of freedom, of movement, of self. Her husband, and other men, gallop up on horseback, ordering her to stop (in Iran, these patriarchs have the law of ancient custom on their side), yet as she continues on her swift and unprecedented journey, the movie locates, in the exhilarating surge of her forward glide, a symbol of the new Iranian woman that seems to touch the nerve center of the modern feminist impulse.
Directed by Marziyeh Meshkini, from a script by her husband, the celebrated filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (who made the transfixing Gabbeh), The Day I Became a Woman is a three-part allegory that was temporarily banned in Iran, though it may appear at once bracing and remote to Western eyes. That bicycle episode erupts with a lyric fury we’re not used to in Iranian cinema. The other two segments, about a young girl and an old lady, are more conventional, yet they add up to a vision of an Iran whose women might be liberating themselves by taking a giant leap from the 19th century to the 21st. That old lady, a frail rascal, arranges the products she buys at a mall — bedroom set, appliances — all over a beach, a perfect image of the ambivalence toward progress, even for women who have spent their lives silently waiting to breathe free.