The Patience Stone (Syngué Sabour - Pierre de patience) (Atiq Rahimi — Afghanistan/France/UK/Germany) 102 minutes
A familiar complaint by novelists — and their fans — about film adaptations of their books is how their vision is distorted and betrayed. It has always seemed to me to be a case of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it — or as the corresponding French expression says, to have the butter and the money to buy it. If you don’t like what happens to your book on the big screen, then perhaps it would be better to either not accept the money, or make the butter yourself.
These days, many French novelists are squaring the circle by making the butter themselves; in recent years, Emmanuel Carrère, Marjane Satrapi, Michel Houellebecq, Frédéric Beigbeder and Virginie Despentes, among others, have all directed adaptations of their own books for the screen. Directing films has long been a side job for French writers, with Georges Perec, Guy Debord, Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet and François Weyergans among those that have swapped pen for megaphone. More recently though, the novelists are more likely to be rehashing their own source material though. The latest of those is Afghan-born Atiq Rahimi, who for the second time, adapts one of his own novels, his 2009 Prix Goncourt-winning Syngué Sabour, with the help of veteran screenwriter and Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière.
Syngué Sabour (or The Patience Stone, as it is known in English) tells the tale of a young Afghan woman (played by Iranian Golshifteh Farahani) who is tending to her comatose husband as war rages around them. It is Afghanistan in an undisclosed period (though the lack of either Soviet or American troops suggests it might be the 1990s), and the woman is forced to abandon the husband alone in the front room of their faded Kabul home and hide in the cellar with neighbours as shells fall. She then sends her children off to stay with her aunt, who works as a prostitute the other side of town. When her neighbours are massacred, she is left on her own with her vegetative spouse, and she proceeds to tell him her innermost secrets.
It’s a clever conceit that circumvents the restrictions on female agency in Afghan society and symbolises them at the same time. Rahimi does his best to make his book cinematic — his visual sense is strong for someone better known as a writer — and Farahani, now an exile from her career and life in Iran, is a fitting presence for the solitary protagonist. Ultimately though, the film suffers from the same problem as the book, only more so. Like the novel, it seems far too much like a play; unlike the book, it doesn’t have the facility for the monologue to be internalised, so Farahani has to carry a lot of dramatic weight, and, despite her best efforts, it is not always convincing. One can understand Rahimi’s desire to film the novel itself — it is a ‘return home’ of sorts and he was able to transpose the novel’s French to his native Farsi for the screenplay. It is a creditable effort but at no point do you feel it complements the novel in any vital way. The irony is, Rahimi, as competent a director as he is, doesn’t bring anything more to it than a different director might have. Overall, Syngué Sabour is a film that plays it just a little too safe.