“Not Without My Daughter” (selected theaters) isn’t likely to do much for American-Mideastern understanding. Although it’s based on fact and set in Iran in 1984, not Iraq today, its tone is that of an unrelenting anti-Islamic polemic, which is probably how it will be received by audiences whose eyes are fixed nervously on the Persian Gulf.
It’s a TV-like movie, on the bigger screen probably because of the presence of Sally Field as its star. Directed by Brian Gilbert from a book co-written by Betty Mahmoody, it opens in Michigan as an Iranian-born physician, Sayyed Mahmoody (Alfred Molina), who has lived in the United States for 20 years, tries to cajole his American wife (Field) into a short visit to Iran, taking their 4-year-old daughter with them.
Mahmoody, nicknamed Moody, tries to allay his wife’s fears about visiting a country at war and, in any case, hostile to Americans by holding the Koran, swearing: “On the sacred Koran, you won’t be in any danger . . . and we’ll be back in two weeks.” Since this is after the 1979-1981 U.S. hostage crisis and before the death of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, her fears seem more than justified; however, an oath as grave as this one calms Betty Mahmoody, who agrees reluctantly to the visit.
Details of Islamic life after the revolution that Moody has glossed over or has blatantly lied about are only too clear the minute their plane lands in Tehran, where the fierce, uncordial likeness of Khomeini looms from every wall.
Betty’s appearance in the marketplace in a modest scarf rather than the prescribed, enveloping chador brings a policewoman with an automatic rifle, while a family member barks at Betty: “Every single hair you do not cover is like a dagger you aim at the heart of our mother.” Things are downhill from there in the eyes of Moody’s peasant-born family, traditional Shiite Muslims.
Molina does everything possible to suggest that Mahmoody is a man of divided loyalties, but he is reduced to chewing his lip and looking agonized during his lightning-quick slide from decent dad to fiend once he is home again. The British actor, known particularly for his exceptional performance as Joe Orton’s bald, overweight lover in “Prick Up Your Ears,” is now thin and with hair; playing Mahmoody he even appears to speak Farsi but there’s not much any actor can do about empathy when his character opens by lying on the bible of his faith and works downward from there.
David W. Rintels’ earnest, juiceless script is no help. All of Moody’s speeches to Betty seem to begin, “I don’t know how to say this to you but. . . .” But he has been fired from his Michigan hospital job days before they left; but after 20 years in the United States he wants to practice medicine in Iran; but he wants little Mahtob (Sheila Rosenthal), their daughter, raised as a Muslim. Since his wife is in his country now, with no rights whatever, she has nothing to say in the matter.
Over the next 18 months, as her husband turns jailer, then monster, Betty Mahmoody’s life becomes a series of thwarted escapes from a seemingly fiendish society. Given the reactive nature of her role, Field is fine as the initially naive and always fiercely protective mother; however if there are virtues to being an American-born wife under Islamic law, you won’t learn about them here.
It remains for the Indian actor Roshan Seth--Nehru in “Gandhi” and Mr. Panks in “Little Dorrit"--to appear as the only positive Iranian, a rich and sympathetic aristocrat who has helped others escape his country in the past. Not even Seth’s elegance and worldly warmth, nor his short speech about the virtues of his country’s culture, is enough to give balance to the film’s nearly two-hour portrayal of harassment, inequality and suppression.