Women Talking

Women Talking

The women in Women Talking live in an isolated colony of Mennonites.  (The story is based on events that took place in Bolivia in 2010.)  They’ve accepted a subservient role in their male-centered society without question.  They are illiterate and their education consists solely of the tenets of their religion.  Their responsibilities consist of tending to the household, bearing and raising children.  Anything else is the exclusive domain of the men.  For a long time, the women in the colony have accepted their lot in life with an unwavering faith.  They have also placed their complete trust in the men as the leaders of their colony and their religion.  Women Talking examines what happens after the women learn that their trust has been horrifically abused.

For years, the women suspected something was wrong when they woke in the morning with bruises on their body and later discovered that they were pregnant.  When the women asked about the bruises on their body (or worse), the men said that they were attacked by ghosts or demons, or that the episode was a result of their “female imagination”. The truth was horrifying.  The women were being drugged and raped by the some of the men of their colony, by their own neighbors, by men they prayed with.  This part of the story would have made for a gripping movie all by itself.  But Women Talking is less concerned about the build up to the revelation and more about how the women act in light of what they have learned.

After one of the women, Salome (a raging Clarie Foy), had attacked several men with a scythe after realizing that her four year-old daughter had been sexually assaulted, the male leaders of the colony agreed to have the rapists locked up in jail for their own protection for 48 hours.   During that time, the men gave the women an ultimatum: forgive the men upon their return, or be excommunicated and prevented from entering heaven.  The situation serves as the catalyst for a vote amongst the women.  Their options are:  1) stay and do nothing, 2) stay and fight and 3) leave.  Some women opt to do nothing and immediately leave the meeting.  The choice comes down to fighting for change and leaving.  Both of those choices have substantial risks, and the women have the colony’s teacher August (Ben Whishaw) document the pros and cons of each.

Over the course of the day, the women discuss each choice as calmly as they can.  Salome wants to fight for a better life for themselves and their children but is consumed with vengeance.  Ona (Rooney Mara, beautifully ephemeral and thoughtful) asks whether forgiveness should be considered, since it is fundamental to their faith.  Mariche (Jessie Buckley) is bitter over having to forgive her abusive husband in the past and now possibly abandoning her life for an uncertain future.  Whenever emotions threaten to derail the discussion the elder women of the colony bring things back to the question at hand.  Agata (Judith Ivey), serves as the voice of reason and faith, while Greta (Sheila McCarthy) quietly uses folksy wisdom to sway opinion.  (Her simple anecdotes about her beloved horses Ruth and Cheryl are both disarming and incredibly moving.)

Given that Women Talking primarily takes place within a barn and focuses exclusively on the  discussion between the women (and August), the movie often feels like a stage play.  Even if it were, the discussion itself is so engrossing that I never thought much about the world outside.  I was riveted from the beginning, watching these characters talking through both of the choices before them with only their faith and each other to guide them.  (Director Sarah Polley provides enough glimpses of the world outside the barn and the individual lives of the women that the movie never feels small.)

The subtlety of the argument made by Women Talking–that faith mustn’t be abandoned even in the darkest of times, is an extremely difficult one to make in light of the facts.  For these women, the question isn’t about faith but trust.  Once they realize that their trust was misplaced and can never be repaired, their faith leads them to making the right decision.  On this level alone, Women Talking is one of the most inspirational movies I’ve ever seen.

Women Talking is a true ensemble piece, where actors take turns sharing the spotlight.  Foy and Mara deliver some of their best acting to date, while Buckley turns in another stunning performance.  Ivey and McCarthy are pitch perfect in their supporting roles, as is Whishaw.  Even the movie’s smaller performances are memorable.  While the real-life events behind the movie are the worst that can be imagined, the movie itself is haunting, thoughtful and incredibly spiritual.  Highly Recommended.


This actually happened.

The story of Women Talking isn’t a parable or a metaphor, but real life.

Not one hundred years ago, fifty years ago, or even twenty years ago.  2010.

Those were the thoughts I had immediately after seeing Women Talking, and in the days afterwards.  It is one of those movies that stays with you, lingering in the corners of your mind.  It forces you to confront uncomfortable truths, and is one of the saddest movies I’ve ever seen.  However, it also provides the sort of optimism that can only arise from the most terrible things that anyone can grapple with in life.  Even in the face of the horrific, people cope and decide upon a way forward.  Not everyone, certainly, but most.  If any movie were to perfectly encapsulate that inescapable aspect of life, Women Talking is that movie.

The facts behind the movie are so shocking and horrific that the movie (as well as the book it is based on) could have taken a completely different approach.  The movie could have spent an hour or so observing the women of this Mennonite compound, depicting their daily lives and contrasting it with the abuse the men in their colony afflicted upon them at night.  Then, in the final twenty minutes or so, one (or more) of the women discover that the abuse that the men say is due to ghosts or their imagination is actually being inflicted upon them by their neighbors.  Men who they live next door to and they pray with are secretly drugging them at night and raping them while they are unconscious.  It’s a realization that would be on par with Mia Farrow understanding that she was impregnated by the Devil.

One of the women commits suicide in the aftermath of this discovery.  Another physically attacks the men, forcing the leader of the colony to have them arrested for their own safety.  With the women’s voices finally being heard, they are confronted with an uncertain future, either by staying with their colony or by leaving.  Either way, the women are triumphant, having confronted the evil in their midst and obtaining justice.  Fade to black. 

Unfortunately, real life isn’t as simple as that.  It doesn’t provide neat and tidy conclusions.  Often justice takes a long time to come, if at all.  Women Talking isn’t really concerned with addressing that part of the story at all.  Instead, the movie focuses on what it believes is the crucial part of the story: how the women process what they know and decide what to do next.

There is urgency to the group decision the women must make.  The men have given the leaders an ultimatum:  they must use the next forty-eight to forgive the men.  If they don’t they will be excommunicated and be prohibited from entering heaven upon their death.  For women who have lived their entire lives according to strict, fundamentalist orthodoxy, this is not an easy decision for them to make.  They must either absolve their rapists and live alongside them the rest of their lives or risk eternal damnation in the afterlife.

I would like to believe that if I was facing the same decision as the women in this movie, I wouldn’t hesitate to leave as soon as possible and never look back.  However, that choice, while obvious, is far from simple.  The women have received no education and are illiterate.  They have no money, and only can take with them their clothes and enough food for the journey to the closest town.  Since only boys fifteen and younger will be taken, adult men (children and otherwise) who have done nothing wrong will be left behind.  Finally, leaving means they will leave behind the only life they have ever known for an unknown future, one with none of the safety and security they formerly had.  (Even though both were illusory.)

This is why the women are initially equally divided on which path to take.  Staying and fighting comes with as many risks as leaving, maybe even less in certain respects.  When the women decided to devise a pros and cons list for both options, I was worried.  A pros and cons list can easily be construed to justify a bad decision.  All you need to do is stack the deck for the option you really want to take by having the pros outweigh the cons.  Fortunately, Greta and Agata help their daughters see that choosing to stay and fight is not a reasonable course of action, given how it is based upon anger.  Who wouldn’t want to take the first opportunity to exact revenge for the abuse of their children?  However, if the women are to have any hope of having a future where both they and their daughters will be safe, the decision must be based on reason.

The way director Polley captures the discussion is brilliant filmmaking.  The women only have two things at their disposal to help them reach a consensus: their faith and each other.  Over forty-eight hours, they respectfully hear each other’s views and feelings on the matter.  The women act as a collective consciousness, where each one of them voices their opinions and feelings openly.  They talk things through as calmly as they can, working through the intense emotions that rise to the surface.  All voices are considered equally and taken into account.  Even though there are moments of anger, the conversation never devolves into a shouting match.  And when tempers flare, they use their faith to steer the conversation back to the fateful decision before them.

Faith plays a crucial role in the women’s’ decision-making process.  Their faith gives them clarity and helps them realize that they must leave.  Their faith guides them to end.  This is not surprising, since faith is the only thing of consequence the women have ever been taught.  Their faith shapes their every thought and action.  That they would use it to shape their reasoning is not surprising.  What is surprising is that the movie is also an example of why one should retain one’s faith even though there is every reason to abandon it.  The men in the colony may have used faith to keep the women illiterate and powerless, but it is that same faith that gives the women the strength to cope with the situation at hand.

The other remarkable aspect of the movie is how it shows the women actively separating faith from trust.  In the Mennonite society that the women and men are part of, the two notions are inseparable.  The men are both the spiritual and political leaders of the colony, and the women are expected to trust them without question.  (The same can be said about other fundamentalist religions.)  The pros/cons the women debate are not about their faith, but about trust.  Can they trust the men to not abuse them again if they forgive them?  Can they trust some of the men if they take them with them?  Can they trust boys older than fifteen?  In the end, the women’s decision is not whether they should remain faithful, but who they can trust.

As someone who was raised Catholic, I picked up on different aspects of Christ being represented by the three main characters.  I saw Ona as the philosophical, meditative and forgiving Christ, the one from the Sermon on the Mount.  She is able to talk logically and dispassionately about what it means to forgive the men.  Salome is Christ as the lion.  Just as Christ threw the money changers out of the temple, Salome wants to eliminate the abusers from her colony.  Finally, after first being asked to forgive her abusive husband and suffering a brutal beating at his hands, I saw Mariche as symbolizing the lamb of god.  Like Christ, she is distressed by the choice she is being forced to make, like Christ at Gethsemane.

Women Talking is one of the few movies I’ve seen where there isn’t a clear leading performance or performances.  Several get a bit more of the spotlight than the others, namely those of Rooney Mara (Ona), Claire Foy (Salome) and Jessie Buckley (Mariche).  Mara has played many   beautiful and emotionally challenged characters over her career, but her Ona is something more.  She’s still incredibly beautiful, but in an ephemeral way, like a religious statue that has come to life.  Foy has the character with the most fireworks, exposing depths of rage she only hinted at as the Queen on The Crown.  Buckley’s performance is another stunner in a series of great performances over the last several years.  She portrays Mariche as a live wire, full of hurt and internalized rage that she throws at others like hand grenades.  If the movie only had room for those three indelible performances, it would still be great.  Somehow, it manages to fit in another four that are equally memorable.  

If Mara, Foy and Buckley are the co-leads, then Judith Ivey (Agata), Sheila McCarthy (Greta), Michelle McLeod (Mejal) and Ben Whishaw (August) would be co-supporting performances.  I haven’t seen Ivey in a movie in a long time, and I honestly didn’t recognize her.  McCarthy’s  Greta is so nuanced and textured, it’s ridiculous to think of her performance as supporting.  The way she’s able to seamlessly pivot between her characters’ many facets was a masterclass of acting all by itself.  McLeod doesn’t have a lot of space for her performance, but I loved how she was the true rebel, always ready to have a smoke.  Lastly, Whishaw’s performance as the regretful and crestfallen August was haunting.  Amazingly, the biggest star in the production, three-time Academy Award winner Frances McDormand, is only on hand for a cameo.  There are other smaller performances, like August Winter’s Melvin, which also were incredibly impactful.  The acting by everyone involved is exceptional.

Like all directors-turned-actors, Sarah Polley does an exceptional job capturing the brilliant work of her actors.  Having not seen her previous films, I can’t say whether Women Talking is a leap forward for her as a director.  Her direction is crisp, respectful and incredibly purposeful.  My only quibble would be the decision to film the story with a de-saturated palette.  I suspect this was done to symbolize how the lives the women had in the colony were sad and perhaps even meaningless to a degree.  It’s the one aspect of an otherwise brilliant film that was overthought  but thankfully didn’t distract from the overall effect.

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