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Women Talking–In the Name of Religion

Directed by Sarah Polley, based on the titular novel by Miriam Toews, Women Talking is inspired by a true story of horrific mass rapes in a small Mennonite community.  Intentionally ambiguous with regard to time and place, the religious colony in Women Talking is cut off from the modern world:  any place in America full of barns, overalls and horse-drawn-carts will do. Women Talking  explores the wide-ranging  challenges and obstacles faced by women when their bodies and dignity have been ravaged.

Co-produced  by Frances McDormand (“Macbeth”. “Nomadland”, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”),  Women Talking opens with the discovery that a group of the colony’s men have been drugging the women and children with cow tranquilizer, then raping them while they are unconscious.. Some of the victims are children as young as three.  

The women and girls wake up in the mornings, alone,  bruised and bloodied.   With no recollection of their rapes, except for the unhealed wounds, they are gaslighted by the men into believing that they are either having bad dreams,  hallucinations or perhaps even ghostly apparitions.  

 As women in isolation, can they trust their own voices, their own memories, their own pain?   They share stories about their husbands and fathers of their children:  should they continue  to obey and forgive their attackers, knowing that their forgiveness allows the men to repeat their assaults with impunity?

Some of the older women, in particular, still want to follow the colony’s religious rules and forgive the men’s violence for the sake of their own salvation.  The emotionally and physically  scarred Janz ( Frances McDormand),  plays a minor role as an immovable supporter of the old ways. Is she afraid of change or the repercussions of a failed escape?  

The protective, enraged mother-tiger Salome (Claire Foy of “The Crown”), the belligerent and furious Mariche (Jessie Buckley of “The Lost Daughter”, “Fargo”, “The Wild Rose”), the patient long-suffering pregnant  Ona (Rooney Mara of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, “Carol”) and the grandmotherly sage Agata (Judith Ivey) – represent different,  shifting perspectives on community, motherhood, women’s support and agency, as well as religious fervor and independence.  The perpetually  abused young mother Mariche feels she has to sacrifice herself for the sake of her children and stay.  Salome, in sharp contrast, refuses to remain without fighting  a community which has raped her  three-year-old daughter.  She wants vengeance, not redemption or forgiveness.  

Grappling with the brutality of their existence and the sanctions of their faith, Women Talking asks questions about what women owe themselves and each other.  Are they complicit and self-destructive for the sake of their religion?   Can these women grab onto a  belief that the unknown afterlife are better than the known for them and their children?  Will they simply forgive the men, as their religion  dictates? Or can they hope for a better life?

The main battlelines are drawn, each with an argument that is understandable and heartbreaking.  The irony is emphasized by portentious tones of Biblical parables and a teenager’s account of her rape,  spoken to the pregnant belly of  Ona (Rooney Mara), herself bearing the effect of a vicious rape.   

Women Talking is a gimlet-eyed, unflinching dissection of the tentativeness of women’s power.  Cinematically, the gray and sepia tones of the film mirror the bleakness and gloom of these women’s lives, Ingmar Bergmanesque in tone.  Both Foy and Mara  give powerhouse performances, while Whishaw is subtle in his courageous compassion in the face of death. Frances McDormand is barely on screen, a definite loss to the drama.

Not action-driven, Women Talking is powerfully  unnerving.  While not for everyone, and with perhaps an unexpected ending given the incendiary nature of the women’s resistance,  Women Talking contributes greatly to the cultural and political stories we may have hidden in the dark rooms of our souls.   Women Talking reveals the undertow of pain–for both women and men.

Availability: Amazon Prime

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