Film-maker, Nahid Persson – born and raised in Iran – goes back to her roots to explore the functional and psychological problems faced by a family which comprises one man, his four wives, 20 children and his irascible, foul-mouthed mother. There’s another problem underway: 50-year-old Heda wants to take a fifth wife, this time a virgin who won’t talk back.
Although the Quran permits a man to take more than one wife, polygamy is not common in Iran. It is found mainly in rural areas and only 14 per cent of Iranians practise it. Persson makes this clear from the outset – this is not a comment about Iran, rather a look at four women in an extreme situation. In an early scene, Heda’s mother condemns it. ‘All my son thinks about is pussy,’ she states (subtitled).
While his elderly mother supplies outrageous, hilarious comedy with her outbursts, there is a series of quieter tragedies being played out. Each of the first three wives must live not only with the heartbreak of her husband having taken a new wife, but also with the physical and emotional claustrophobia of being forced to live with the other wives under the same roof, as well as with the children of each. The situation is exaggerated for Ziba, the fourth and youngest wife, who despairs as she realises she is infertile.
However, despite the rivalries and the resentments among the wives, there are touching moments of extraordinary reconciliation. The third wife, Shahpar, gives her newborn baby to Ziba to raise as her own. Two years after the early scenes, we revisit the family and find a happy, hopeful Ziba with the toddler who sees her as its mother.
Four Wives, One Man focuses almost exclusively on the women. Heda is an aggressive, unsympathetic man, who threatens violence and will carry out his threats if a wife pushes him too far. He has problems of his own: how is it possible to support a family of that size by selling sheep at market? But Persson said in an interview that the women’s stories are her focus, and it is clear from the women’s frankness in front of the camera that Persson became personally involved and built a trusting relationship with them. She herself noted that the wives began to regard their sessions in front of the camera as a sort of therapy.
However, there is no closure, as the introduction of the fifth wife at the end brings the beginning of a new cycle of jealousy, conspiracy and chaos. But it takes a new love rival for Ziba to finally become part of the old gang. ‘It was manageable with just four of us,’ they say, echoing their discontent of three years earlier when, at Ziba’s arrival, three had been a good number.