A Woman

By Tahmina Rafaella | Drama
A young, modern mother struggles to find her place in a Muslim country.

Leyli is a young, modern woman living in Baku, Azerbaijan. She is a mother, wife, worker and daughter, juggling her many roles and responsibilities amid a busy, complicated life.

She balances demands from her mother, helps her son navigate interpersonal dilemmas at school, meets her responsibilities at her job and offers career advice to her husband. Yet she struggles to find time for herself, and when she does, her energy and focus are sapped. When her husband gets an opportunity at his work, thanks in part to Leyli’s input, she confronts the parameters of her life, and the roles she’s taken on.

Written and directed by Tahmina Rafaella — who also plays the lead role — this short drama has a documentary feel, capturing the competing cross-currents of one woman’s life. It’s both a portrait of an ordinary character made extraordinary by the film’s delicate attention to nuance, as well as a compelling snapshot of the complexity of contemporary life in a culture not often seen onscreen.

Visually, the film too juggles both a naturalistic, doc-style style with psychological penetration. The camera has a looseness that situates viewers like a fly on the wall in this ordinary household, capturing the family with elegant economy. But it also captures the small moments of Leyli’s inner life and the way that her life’s demands pull at her with both love and exhaustion. We see small moments of fulfillment, but also the ones of loneliness and overwhelm.

The storytelling captures the balance between specificity and universality, both in character and setting. Life in modern Azerbaijan straddles tradition and modernity: under Soviet control until 1991, it juggles European, Muslim and Asian influences. Many of its mores and habits are the same as anywhere else, especially in the constant rings and beeps of an iPhone’s notifications.

Leyli’s juggling of the demands of home, work and caretaking also are recognizable to many working women around the world. Rafaella’s performance of Leyli has a strong core of self, and no matter what role she’s in, she is grounded, smart and loving. But with understatement and precision, she also captures how this self can get buried underneath an ever-growing pile of to-do list items and emotional and mental demands.

The performance subtly captures a growing undertow of melancholy, and while Leyli never hits a breaking point in the film — in fact, she is the portrait of fortitude and patience — we do see the subtle wear of it upon her. She has a chance to widen the scope of her life, but it may upset its already precarious balance. But she’s also given implicit recognition of her contributions, making for a conclusion both heartrending and moving in its simplicity and subtlety.

“A Woman” is dedicated to the director’s mother, and while the inspirational wellspring may be specific and personal, the story is a tribute to the work that mothers do all over the world. Even as the world changes and grows ever more complicated — and the complexities of caretaking grow accordingly — mothers often remain the beating heart of their families, nurturing and giving love and support. “A Woman” brings viewers intimately into how this emotional work gets done, how it can be both lonely and loving all at once and how far a moment of appreciation and recognition can go to sustain it.

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