- Sarah Polley
- Run Time
- 1 hour and 44 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.
Wives, in the same way, be subject to your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct,
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Sarah Polley’s newest film, which she wrote as well as directed, was adapted by Polley from Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel of the same name. If the title puts you off because it sounds like a bunch of privileged ladies sitting around complaining as they drink cups of café au lait or cocktails, put any fear of boredom aside—the title might better be Women Desperately Talking! The novel grew out of the outrageous suffering of a group of women in a real life Mennonite colony in Bolivia where they were raped and abused for several years by some of the men, their oppression supported by the silence of the other males.
Young Autje ((Kate Hallett) serves as the narrator, apparently speaking to her child, “This story begins before you were born.” Explaining how women had awakened from a drugged sleep to find blood caked on their legs or staining their night gowns, she reports that a child had one night seen one of the attackers fleeing his crime. Thus the men’s’ claims that the women had been hysterical or that a ghost or demon was the rapist were disproved, the man and several others arrested and taken to jail. The rapists had used tranquilizers intended for cattle on the women, the victims extending from older and middle-aged women down to children as young as four! Virtually all of the men had gone into town to bail out the rapists, leaving with the women charged with deciding what they would do. It would be about 48 hours before the men were to return, so the choices before the women are–“Do nothing,” “Stay and fight” or “Leave.” Autje says in her narrative, “We had 24 hours to imagine what kind of world you would be born into.”
Most of the women gather for the first meeting where on a large sheet of paper the artist of the group places at the top three drawings, one for each option, and below which each woman signifies her choice. None of the women can read or write, so their signatures are X’s. When all the votes are tallied it is apparent that the group is at an impasse. Those who opted for “Do Nothing” are led by “Scarface” Janz (Frances McDormand, also one of the film’s producers), so they go back to their homes, leaving the other two groups to debate their course of action. Eight women from two leading families are chosen to represent those in the last two options. As they share their experiences of oppression and discuss the ethics of their faith, they slowly do imagine a world free of the horrors inflicted upon them
There is one man present throughout their debates, August (Ben Whishaw) the schoolteacher (for the boys). The women want to leave a record of their words for others to see, all of them realizing the importance of what they are about. He is the only man they trust, though not allowed to join in the debate. At least not until occasionally they ask his opinion, which he is always very hesitant to express. There is one other, Melvin, a transgender man so traumatized by rape that he can now speak only to children. The mothers entrust their children to his care so they can concentrate on talking.
The six of them, along with a couple of girls too young to fully understand the proceedings, meet in in the hayloft of a barn. One of them says that among the three things she desires is “to think,” something denied her by the oppressive patriarchy she had been born into. There is much anger and anguish in the debates, with many opposing viewpoints expressed. By the end I was reminded of a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee meeting I attended in Mississippi many years ago where every viewpoint was freely expressed and the meeting went on and on and on until everyone was satisfied with the outcome.
Salient points of theology and ethics are raised and debated, including the woman who dares to ask how an Almighty and loving God could observe such injustice and not intervene. The male elders had told the women they must forgive their husbands, and so the women debate the idea of a forced forgiveness—is this really the forgiveness taught by their faith. Unknowingly, the women are discussing what Dietrich Bonhoeffer denounced as “cheap grace,” reconciliation without acknowledging the pain inflicted by the wrong.
Ona (Rooney Mara) is accused of being a dreamer, and so she is, having been impregnated by an unknown assailant. She is one of the reasons that August returned to the colony after being expelled years earlier. She may be a dreamer, but she raises hard questions, “Why does love – the absence of love, the end of love, the need for love – result in so much violence?” And she has both feet planted on earth when she says, “There must be something worth living for in this life, not only in the next.” Ona’s older sister Salome (Claire Foy) is even more angry over their abuse than Mariche (Jessie Buckley). They want to stay and fight, even being willing to become murderers if necessary. One of the older women—there are two who are the mothers of the younger women—argues that they are in danger of giving up their core belief in pacifism, and thus for her staying is not an option. The other matriarch injects some humor by telling the story of how she learned to keep her two horses on an even path in the road—it was by not looking directly at the horses but at a spot far ahead of them. One teaching bothers them—that only within the community can they hope to reach heaven; might it not be better to stay and suffer for the hope of a better world to come?
One of the women quotes the advice of the apostle Paul, not his patriarchal words about wives, but what they should be focusing their minds upon—“Whatever is true, whatever…” This lifts the group above the desire for murderous vengeance expressed by the angry women. The women also forgive one another, one of the matriarch’s realizing how wrong was her advice to her daughter to accept and stay with an abusive husband.
We see them, as they talk, pray, and sing hymns, slowly reach a consensus, a sense of sisterhood developing. Their talking and sharing viewpoints brings a greater awareness to each other than any one of them struggling with the situation by herself. Even as they arrive at a consensus there remains the question concerning their children—at what point are their boys too old to unlearn patriarchy? The Latin American theologians who taught Liberation Theology called this process of analyzing one’s oppressive situation and deciding on what to do about it “conscientization,” something also which the heroine of one of my favorite foreign language films, The Official Story, goes through. These women would be disparaged by some politicians today as being “woke.”
The inclusion of the male character August saves the film from painting all men as savage beasts, and in his briefly given backstory, we see how the women had a predecessor in rebelling against patriarchy. It was his mother’s questioning of the authority of the elders that had gotten them excommunicated. (Shades of Puritan New England’s Anne Hutchinson!) She had sent him to school, he studying at a university so that he could return as the colony’s teacher. He is in agreement with what they decide, one that results in a stirring final scene which I must leave for you to discover. It will be an event giving further meaning to the above Psalm, which one of the women quotes as she contemplates what they are about to do.
The subject of rape by one’s relatives while being drugged is an awful one, but Ms. Polley never shows us any of the sexual violence, only the bruised and bloody after effects several flashbacks of a bruised or bloodied woman waking up, not knowing how she had come to such an estate. This is enough. And this restraint also enables us to rejoice with the women when one of them, as mentioned above, declares, “This is the day which the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it!” Their rebellion against cruel, unjust authority becomes inspiring to behold. We are left uncertain about their future, but guided by their faith and a prophetic imagination of a better world, we can be certain that they will not tolerate any further male tyranny.
The washed out cinematography, criticized by some, is appropriate for the story, and the convincing acting by the cast makes one wish that there was an Oscar for Best Ensemble Cast. Sarah Polley’s film, which I must somehow squeeze into my just published Top Ten Film List, winds up as much of a feel good movie as A Man Named Otto! Maybe Feel Proud movie is a better fit.
Effective scene: Before their enclave the women gently wash each other’s feet, a practice followed by a number of conservative sects. There seems to be special joy and love in it for the women because the men are gone. We can only imagine how the women who had been raped must have felt during those times when the hands doing the washing belonged to a possible rapist. Or to one whose maleness was seen as more of a bond than the love which they professed, and so they did nothing to protect the women from the predators in their midst.
This review will be in the February issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.