Women Talking

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Mennonite woman - Women Talking

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Paul Asay

Movie Review

They were told it was nothing. A product, perhaps, of an ungodly imagination.

If the blood and bruises were too hard to ignore, they were told it was the product of ghosts. Or demons.

But one night, the tranquilizers failed. One night, a girl saw her attacker. And she knew him.

For years, the girls and women of this isolated Mennonite community had suffered such attacks. The men would knock them out with cow tranquilizer and have their way. Old or young, it didn’t matter. Some victims weren’t old enough to tie their shoes.

The guilty men—some of them, anyway—were arrested. But the community takes care of its own. The rest of the men have gone to town to bail the accused rapists out. They’ll all be coming home soon.

And when those men return, they expect the women to forgive.

They might be asked to live alongside these men—the men who attacked them, the men who did nothing to stop them—as if nothing happened. Such is the way of their community. So they’ve been taught. God demands nothing less.

But the women aren’t so sure of God’s will in this. Some feel unable to live with their rapists. Many are unwilling. And while the men are gone, they consider three possible choices:

Should they do nothing?

Should they leave?

Should they stay and fight?

A handful of women gather in the barn to discuss their community’s fate. Because the women were forbidden from learning how to read and write, a schoolteacher named August—a nominal outsider—takes notes.

They are wives, mothers, grandmothers, children. They consider what they must do, for the first time in their lives taking the initiative. Making their own choices. And each choice comes with horrors unthinkable, consequences irreversible.

But a choice must be made—and made soon. Tomorrow, the men will be back.

Tomorrow, the world will be very different. One way or another.

Positive Elements

For those of us who’ve never been a part of such a tight-knit religious community, we can sometimes look at those who are and make some unfair assumptions: That they must speak alike. Act alike. Are alike. (Often, those same assumptions are leveled at Christians from outside our own broad community, too.)

Women Talking obliterates those assumptions. The women we meet here are all strong, but often in wildly different ways. Ona engages the questions philosophically, almost poetically. Greta is always quick to make analogies, addressing the questions they face with stories about her two high-spirited horses. Salome is a tower of fury, Agatha a voice of sage reason and peace.

All are trying to decide what’s truly best, for themselves and for their children. And—in a tribute to the ideal of community (even in the midst of a community so obviously torn)—they’re committed to sticking together, come what may (with one notable familial exception). If they leave, they’ll do so together. If they stay, they’ll do so together. Whatever decision they make will come with its share of heartbreak. But they’ll face it shoulder to shoulder, hand  in-hand.

August is in a delicate spot. Whatever they decide, he’s an accomplice to their choice—and if they leave, he will need to face whatever comes alone. But August serves his role with honor without flinching. In a community where women were rarely heard, he hears them. He even refuses to offer opinions unless he’s directly asked. He knows his role; and, in this space and time, it’s to be a scribe, a servant to the will of these women. And there’s something honorable about that.

One final, important note. Ona is pregnant with a rapist’s baby. One of the women wonders aloud how she can tolerate having that child inside her. “I already love this child more than anything,” Ona says. All acknowledge that unborn babies are babies, not bits of tissue you can discard, and Ona stresses that her baby—though conceived under the most horrific of circumstances—is worth treasuring.

Spiritual Elements

Given the Mennonite setting and the faith of almost all of our central characters, little surprise that Women Talking is deeply concerned with spiritual matters. Indeed, many of the central questions in play here are spiritual ones.

The first one that crops up is a biggie: The women have all been taught that if they leave the community, they won’t get into heaven. They’ll essentially excommunicate themselves from God’s love, and because most (perhaps all) are illiterate, they can’t turn to the Bible in support or to refute these claims. For one woman, leaving the community is thus unthinkable; instead, she leaves the meeting and goes back home, opting for the “do nothing” option for herself and her children.

For those who are determined to fight or leave, they still must consider what God would want them to do. Several women argue that fighting back, physically, is unthinkable. (Mennonites embrace pacifism as a central tenant of their faith.) “Any resistance is unjustifiable.” But fiery Salome argues that it can be justified. “If God is a loving god, He will forgive us Himself,” she says. “If God is vengeful, He made us in His own image.” But even Salome fears what might happened if she stays: She might well commit the sin of murder.

The film also drills into another interesting question: Though the women have been ordered to forgive their attackers, is that even possible? Sure, you can say the words. You can pretend. But the women understand that they must forgive these men in their hearts, too. And they understand that finding a way to that sort of forgiveness won’t be a matter of simply wishing it so.

We hear that “the twin pillars that guard the entrance to the shrine of religion are storytelling and cruelty.” We can see how cruelty feeds into this story: It’s not just that the men use faith to hide the real perpetrators of the assaults (blaming ghosts or demons). They use it to justify their everyday treatment of their wives and daughters. “We are not members,” says a woman in Miriam Toews’ original book Women Talking. “We are commodities.”

But the women here seem generally able to separate their belief in a loving God from the abuse of those in authority: They sing hymns and offer thanks to the Almighty, and their shared faith remains a critical element in their decision-making. Certainly, the women’s faith in temporal authority is gravely shaken. But their faith in God remains pretty strong.

Sexual Content

Rape is a violent act, so we’ll leave most of those particulars for the next section. Still, we have some elements to talk about in this one.

The commune is home to a character named Melvin, who was born a woman but identifies as a man. The movie stresses that she never considered herself a girl as a teen, but the abuse she suffered cemented the change. She conceived as a result of rape and had a miscarriage. After that, she became—in her own eyes, at least—a boy, and she stopped talking as well. The rest of the community tolerated these changes. But when one of the women uses Melvin’s name, the character is deeply moved.

August has a thing for Ona—a relationship that’ll never blossom because August is technically a community outsider (and his mother was excommunicated from the group).

Violent Content

All of the community’s female members were assaulted at one time or another—many habitually. The women were apparently anesthetized with cow tranquilizer so that they’d not remember what happened—but the physical evidence was, of course, impossible to ignore. The movie doesn’t dwell on these assaults. But we see the aftermath of a few.

The film opens essentially showing Ona waking up, bruises covering her thighs and blood staining her bedclothes and sheets. Her mother rushes in to comfort her—conveying both how horrific and how familiar these attacks have been for them all. Another woman removes a partial set of dentures, admitting that the dentures can hurt after too much wear. We see a flashback of why she needs those dentures: After an attack, her bloodied teeth lie on the bed, her mouth filled with blood as well.

After a miscarriage (the result of rape), a woman smears the resultant blood across the walls of her house.

When a girl wakes up during an attack (she’s likely in her early teens), she and a friend scream out the window to alert the rest of the community. Later, we see a woman attack one of the accused with what may be a scythe.

A woman and her daughter are beaten badly by their husband/father. We see both bearing bruises, and one of the woman’s arms is held in a sling. Someone leaps out of the second-story barn door, causing some panic—before discovering that the girl leapt into a pile of hay below. We hear several women talk about their desire, or fear, to hurt the men who hurt them, and one says that she’ll kill anyone who harms her children. Someone suffers a seizure. Another woman appears to be close to death.

[Spoiler Warning] August has a gun, which he apparently planned to use on himself. He eventually gives the gun to one of the women to use for protection.

Crude or Profane Language

Two f-words are used in a darkly comic scene, given that the speakers aren’t familiar with how to use them. We hear one s-word as well.

Drug and Alcohol Content

As mentioned, the women and girls of the community were regularly drugged with cow tranquilizer. We see a woman use that tranquilizer on someone herself.

We’re told that a man has come home and drinks himself into a state of unconsciousness (a fairly common habit, we’re led to believe.) While drunk, the man beats his wife and daughter. We don’t see the man at all—only hear about him from his wife, both before and after the beating.

A woman smokes.

Other Negative Elements

We hear about the bathroom habits of farm animals.

Conclusion

These women have endured horrors unspeakable. And yet, these women speak.

Such is the pain and hope of Women Talking—a surprisingly riveting movie in spite of it being, pretty much, exactly what the title says it is.

Embodied by some outstanding performers (The Crown’s Claire Foy is absolutely riveting as Salome), these women talk about their lives, their futures, their God-given roles and their God. They talk with raw candor: They rage at the evils they’ve suffered and the evils they’ve lived with. They lash out at each other—frustrated with their very diversity. But they approach their predicament with gentleness, too, and even humor. And sometimes all of these things mix together, as horror and humor can mix in our own lives.

“None of us have asked the men for anything,” says a community matriarch named Agatha. “Not a single thing, not even for the salt to be passed, not even for a penny or a moment alone or to take the washing in or to open a curtain or to go easy on the small yearlings or to put your hand on the small of my back as I try, again, for the 12th or 13th time, to push a baby out of my body.

“Isn’t it interesting, that the one and only request the women would make of the men would be to leave?”

Her audience breaks into breathless laughter.

Those moments of laughter aren’t frequent in Women Talking. How could they be?

But while the story obviously deals with very adult subject matter and does not look away from the horrors chronicled, neither does it use that subject matter to overly sensationalize or shock. The movie, like its conversations, is passionately measured. And even as this unfolding story deals with its own particular agonies, it touches on more universal, relational dynamics—those between man and woman, between mother and child, between God and subject.

The movie is based on a book of the same name by Miriam Toews, who herself was raised Mennonite. And that book was based on true events: In 2011, seven men were convicted of raping upwards of 130 women at a Mennonite community in Bolivia.

Toews’ book, and the lyrically difficult movie based on it, are reminders for those Christians in the audience; How, as beautiful as our faith can be, how terrible it can turn when people misuse it.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.