Tahmineh Milani's impassioned and suspenseful "The Fifth Reaction" opens in a pleasant Tehran restaurant where five women, teachers on their lunch break, are sharing their problems, offering mutual support and attempting as positive an outlook on life as possible in a theocracy that makes women dependent upon men and in which they have precious few rights.
In the midst of their meal the husband of one them, who arrives with his secretary in tow, throws a major tantrum, demanding to know why his wife is wasting her time when she could be using her lunch hour to take care of things at home. It is an ugly scene, concluding with the husband being ejected from the restaurant. In time, the husband will show his remorse by presenting his wife with a Peugeot, but she as well as her friends understand that such a present is not as precious as freedom, respect or equality.
Such angry forthrightness over the plight of Iranian women is vintage Milani, who has been jailed for the outspokenness of her work, and it sets the tone for all that is to come. Sitting quietly on the sidelines during that tumultuous meal is the beautiful Fereshteh (Niki Karimi, Milani's perennial and talented alter ego). Having recently lost her husband in a car accident, she is seen by her friends as at least now spared the everyday grief of married life.
In truth she faces an imminent crisis worse than any of them have ever faced. She married for love, her husband having defied his wealthy and autocratic father, Hadj Agha Saftar (Jamshid Hashempour), to marry her. In time his father forgave his son his defiance but not Fereshteh for marrying him. Now she is at the mercy of a stubborn man who intends to take her two sons away from her, restricting her to a weekly visit; he wants to forbid her to live in his household because he still has two unmarried sons living under his roof and sees this as a source of certain and unseemly gossip. Fereshteh protests so strongly that he relents -- provided she marry one of her brothers-in-law for the sake of propriety.
This proposal finally pushes Fereshteh over the edge and, with the help of her friends, she plots to escape the country with her children. In a flash, "The Fifth Reaction" becomes a taut and well-plotted pursuit movie, a fine example of using the suspense genre as a way to sustain Milani's outrage in crackling, dynamic fashion.
There's a bitter irony in witnessing Hadj Agha, a man of powerful connections, using modern technology -- tapping her friends' phone lines and taunting her on her cellphone -- to carry out so medieval a persecution. "I am the law," declares Hadj Agha, and Hashempour, who bears a striking resemblance to Sean Connery, makes Hadj seem implacable in the exercise of his will.
With the similarly themed "Two Women" (1999) and "The Hidden Half" (2001), and now "The Fifth Reaction," Tahmineh Milani continues to be no less than implacable in her fight for the rights of Iranian women.
'The Fifth Reaction'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Adult, intense themes
Jamshid Hashempour...Hadj Agha Saftar
An IRMTV presentation. Writer-director Tahmineh Milani. Producer Mohammad Nikbin. Cinematographer Alireza Zamindast. Editor Shahrzad Pouya. Music Amir Nikraftar. Costumes/production design Keyvan Moghaddam. In Farsi, with English subtitles.
Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.