Adapted from director Atiq Rahimi's own 2008 novel, The Patience Stone nevertheless feels like a bit of filmed theater, exhibiting the vestigial awkwardness of so many stage-to-screen conversions. Set in an unspecified Afghan city some time during the country's recent conflict, it's a chamber drama that plays out largely between a young wife (Golshifteh Farahani) and her older husband, a cold, distant Mujahidin left comatose by a bullet to the neck.
The film uses the newly closed circuit between the man and the woman, their names never given, to foment a sort of siphoning process, by which the woman draws both life and agency from the fading husk of the man, a relative stranger who spent most of their marriage away at war. The hints offered about the time they did spend together don't seem to indicate domestic bliss either, and while the tending of this former oppressor initially seems like a pointless chore, it finally grants the woman the freedom to blossom. She does this by engaging in a sustained program of self-discovery, using her silent partner as a sounding board for secrets, memories, and fears. Emboldened by his inability to respond or judge, she gradually reveals her story, the somewhat generalized tale of a teenage girl pushed into a loveless arranged marriage.
As she gains confidence, the responsibilities that held her to this old life steadily fall away, a process that, in his best conceptual move, Rahimi matches by knocking off her in in-laws. The battle outside grows in intensity, eventually leaving the woman in a state of isolated self-sufficiency, tied to a man who no longer has the power to possess her. Unfortunately, stripping away all the side plots and distractions also leaves Rahimi without much to work with, even with repeated flashbacks and time spent with the heroic prostitute aunt who takes charge of the woman's children. In this later section, The Patience Stone plays out across a series of static, talky scenes, which have any potential impact undercut by both the familiarity of this narrative and the stagnancy of the camera, plopped down at one side of the room or the other, capturing the action in long, feeble takes.This means that while The Patience Stone may peel away the many layers of its female lead like an onion, the end result is still just an onion. Despite capturing the action from Ozu-style low angles, the film evinces no real motive for its camera setups; it draws no lasting emotion from any of this material, creates no memorable images, and communicates no real sense of the passage of time. The pacing is clumsy, and the staggered series of reveals therefore feels cheap, timed to the familiar beats of mass-market fiction, striking a neat balance between pain and redemption. The worst thing about all this is that the story never earns its context, taking a hot-button political issue and exploiting it as artificially rousing schlock.
It's instructive to compare The Patience Stone to Koji Wakamatsu's Caterpillar, which is constructed around a similar living-death scenario for an old soldier returning from battle. In that film, the male figure's transition from domineering brute to helpless curio of outmoded masculinity is slow and visceral, with a sharp focus on the relationship between personal and national machismo. Here the narrative is much more basic, a black-and-white dialectic that trades in rote emotions rather than actual ideas. The Patience Stone ends with the appearance of a new man for this prototypical long-suffering woman, a stammering soldier with a heart of gold, a shift that assures us that certain demons have been exorcised. As an ending it's too easy and trite, but it's hardly surprising, a fitting conclusion for a film held back by tedious, regressive methods of storytelling.