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Film review: Women Talking

10 February 2023

Stephen Brown reviews a film about survivors

THE director Sarah Polley’s Women Talking (Cert. 15) isn’t the first film with a Mennonite community as its subject. Others, such as Silent Light (Arts, 7 May 2008), have examined the separatist, often austere, cult-like existence of certain Anabaptist churches.

Such communities have been situated around the world, including one in Bolivia, where, during the first decade of this century, its womenfolk were brutally drug-raped by male members, often their relatives. On awakening, the women were told that it was the work of Satan, or else ghosts and hallucinations. The film is based on Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel, her freewheeling “imagined response” to these real-life assaults.

We are no longer in Bolivia; for Women Talking universalises the issues. Consciously or unconsciously, the film becomes an ally of the #MeToo movement arising out of the Harvey Weinstein trial. The ultra-conservative beliefs and practices of Mennonites in this particular case may have provided an excuse for oppressive behaviour, but predatory males are to be found in many situations.

The women in this film are illiterate; so finding the words to describe the horrors that they have endured is agonisingly problematic. As such, it neatly concurs with elements of liberation theology. There is a pedagogy of the oppressed. If power is so imbalanced, those in charge are omniscient teachers whose subjects are forced to accept what they are told about life. How can these women find a vocabulary with which to articulate notions of freedom?

An opportunity occurs when most males temporarily leave the colony to seek bail for the culprits. Once alone, the women debate whether to stay and do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. After a tied vote, 11 of the women gather in a gloomy hayloft to make a final decision. The look, as well as the cut and thrust of argument, is reminiscent of the film Twelve Angry Men, in which jurors struggle for truth to emerge. As the women begin to clarify their situation, the set designed by Peter Cosco becomes more like a cathedral. Windows and doors start opening up, letting in light.

With Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, and Frances McDormand in the cast, this is a strong ensemble piece. There are enough remnants of the Christian faith residing in them to rise above the malpractice in their colony. They speak of a new religion taken from the old, but focused on love: one that awaits being created. Tensions run high as the women rant and rage, both at their male counterparts as well as one another.

Crucial to their deliberations is the weight given to faith and forgiveness. Perfect love may cast out fear, but these people have received so little of that in their lives. They ask themselves why love, the absence of love, the end of love, the need for love result in so much violence. The process of questioning the answers that a male-dominated religion has supplied proves healing and costly.

Words, of which there too many, get us only so far in this film. Thankfully, Polley also registers much through the faces of her characters, as understanding begins to dawn upon them of what the Kingdom of heaven really looks like.

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