We're somewhere in an Arab-speaking country — at this point, it almost doesn't matter that it's Afghanistan. An urban neighborhood on the front lines of sectarian violence: every other building a heap of rubble, bullets pinging in the dusty streets. In a room off a quiet courtyard, a young woman sits over the prostrate body of her husband, who's alive but in a vegetative state. Invisible to the world, she starts to take a long, hard look at her life.
This is the setup and substance of "The Patience Stone," a startling fantasy of Muslim feminist empowerment that allows the Iranian-born actress Golshifteh Farahani to put on what amounts to a one-woman show. Directed by the French-Afghani writer Atiq Rahimi (adapting his own 2008 prize-winning novel), the film is hamstrung at times by its didactic impulses and the cramped locations, but it's more often heart-rending, and the fury coursing under its skin could blister your soul. This is a movie that knows it will never be seen by the women who need to see it most.
The wife (we don't learn her name, or any of the characters') is a mess when "The Patience Stone" opens. With her two little girls (Hiba Lharrak and Aya Abida) playing obliviously in the next room, she begs her husband (Hamidreza Javdan) to wake from his coma and take charge of her life once more. His brothers have fled; her prayers to Allah go unanswered. Bombs shake the house by night; by day, men with guns prowl the streets, hoping to kill in the name of God.
As the woman's options run out, her spine begins to stiffen, and the inert form of the husband — a warrior himself and an uncaring older man who bought her for a bride — becomes a sounding board for her fears, angers, and fantasies. Many of the scenes in "The Patience Stone" take the form of dramatic monologues, arias in which a long-silent woman is finally able to speak and can't stop speaking.
The paradoxes have a cruelty worthy of Kafka. Hiding her husband in a curtained-off niche, the woman is alone when a group of religious fighters bursts in. She tells them she's a prostitute, knowing they won't rape an unclean whore. She also knows they may steal back later individually — because they think she's an unclean whore. Yet the reappearance of one young soldier (Massi Mrowat) awakens something like tenderness in her. Or perhaps it's an unexpected sense of sexual power. Or maybe it's just revenge.
Directing his third film (and first since 2004's "Earth and Ashes"), Rahimi keeps the action primarily within the confines of the sickroom, whose walls come to seem like screens for the woman's projected thoughts. It's a literary gambit that threatens to turn stagy, despite a few side-trips into the streets when the woman seeks a long-lost aunt with whom she can place her daughters. The aunt (Hassina Burgan) turns out to be a wise, old prostitute herself, holding court in a bordello that feels like an eternal female calm in the storm. Inside its walls are all the things men don't understand.
As intended, "The Patience Stone" is a mighty provocation: a scream of rage against a repressive religious patriarchy and a film to singe a mullah's scalp. Farahani, who was something of a poster-child for Iranian cinema until she posed nude in a French magazine in 2012 — unwelcome in her home country, she now works out of Paris — understands the stakes and gives an astonishing, organic performance that comes close to dismantling the scaffolding of agenda with which Rahimi props up his drama. Wheeling through every emotion this woman might feel, toggling from scalding bitterness to submissive piety, bringing the character ever closer to revealing the secret that would destroy her husband's power forever, Farahani gives a star performance of a kind the movies rarely see anymore. Bette Davis would be proud to call her a sister. So would millions of women closer to home.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.