Plot via IMDB
Do nothing. Stay and fight. Or leave. In 2010, the women of an isolated religious community grapple with reconciling a brutal reality with their faith.
“What follows is an act of female imagination,” is the opening title card to Sarah Polley’s talking debate drama Women Talking. The eight Mennonite woman gathered in a barn are the metaphorical all women substitute on how to figure out, cope and deal with male domination in its most insidious form- sexual domination, especially rape.
The choices are to do nothing, fight or leave. The main characters make their cases with ferocity, quiet logic or transcendent spiritual belief, depending on their temperament. Pregnant Ona, played with beatific calm by Rooney Mara, proffers her idea of a just outcome, wherein the men agree that women will be equal and educated members of a reconfigured community. Claire Foy’s Salome, outraged at what has been done and condoned, is far less serene, as is spiky Mariche (Jessie Buckley), who advocates for staying, with misgivings that become clearer as the women’s debate ebbs and flows.
The emotional layers built up as the debate wanes on, choices are eliminated, pros and cons are weighed- in both their essential religious essence and their cost to their future selves- and evaluated through the hurt and wisdom of an emotional past told judiciously in sparse but lyric flashbacks, makes Women Talking an almost transcendental experience.
It’s not only a women awareness film, it tries to show the steps that need to be worked through to know the true wisdom of God in all his/her/it grandeur. The inter generational groupings where decisions and wisdom are strained through experience and their pacifist religious lens- from divine insight to grandmother, mothers and daughters- are a universal symbol for the passing down of divine insight through the awkward stumbling and partial insight inherent in human travail. To know God, it not only takes a village of women, but a world of women working together, holdings hands and fiercely united.
Set over the course of two days in which the women are supposed to decide their own fate, Women Talking possesses a cramped, theatrical quality. (Interestingly enough, Miriam Toews, who wrote the novel the film is based on and who co-wrote the screenplay with Polley, based her novel on a real-life case that occurred in a Bolivian Mennonite colony in 2009.) It takes place mostly in a cramped upper loft of a barn over two days. It’s filmed by Luc Montpellier in mostly somber shades of gray. Polley highlights the women’s isolation through stylized still closeups.
As Ona, Mariche, Salome and their elders (superbly played by Frances McDormand, Judith Ivey, among others) parry back and forth, the effect is akin to a verbal quilting bee. A complicated and eventually United pattern emerges as the women work through levels of emotional understanding, wisdom and the sympathy their beliefs demand from them. These are intelligent women seriously wrestling with understanding God and divine knowledge.
Women Talking confronts audiences with a bleak, shattering uncompromising portrait of generational trauma, as the physical and psychic toll of decades of abuse becomes clear and comes due. “I’m sorry,” says August (Ben Whishaw), a trusted schoolteacher who has agreed to be the women’s recording secretary. “One day, I’d like to hear that from someone who should be saying it,” comes the reply.
Women Taking is ultimately about what it means to be human, and what it takes to be truly free. “When we’ve liberated ourselves, we’ll have to ask ourselves who we are,” Ona says evenly at one point.
Women Talking gets a 4 out of 5 or an A-.
by Miriam Toews
Plan B Entertainment
United Artists Releasing
September 2, 2022 (Telluride)
December 23, 2022 (United States)