One of 2022’s finest films (nominated for best picture and best adapted screenplay) tells the incredible story of eight Mennonite women talking in a hayloft. Written and directed by Sarah Polley (one of Canada’s preeminent filmmakers), Women Talking is based on Canadian author Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel of the same name, which in turn is based on actual events that took place in the Manitoba Colony in Bolivia between 2005 and 2009.
Those actual events do not include any women talking in a hayloft. The talking is “an act of female imagination,” which allows Toews and Polley to ponder how a group of abused women might respond to their horrific situation: For years, some of the colony’s men have been drugging and raping women in the middle of the night. When the women wake up with pain or blood, they are persuaded that they have been attacked by Satan. That works until the night a man is caught in the act. He names others, and the accused are taken to jail. When the colony’s men go into town to post bail, giving the women two days to forgive the accused or be damned for eternity, eight women are selected to decide whether to 1) do nothing, 2) stay and fight or 3) leave. All three choices seem impossible, but choose they must.
Women in the colony are not permitted an education, so they are illiterate. Since they want someone to take minutes, August is invited to the hayloft, becoming the only man who appears in Women Talking. August (played perfectly by Ben Whishaw) is a schoolteacher and trusted friend of Ona (one of the women in the hayloft) who was away from the colony during the time of the assaults. The absence of other men in the film is critical, preventing a distraction from the story the film wants to tell. That story is about how women, so powerless they are barely allowed to speak let alone complain, are now considering taking control of their lives for the first time, expressing thoughts about their faith, their culture, their pain and the colony’s men that they never dared to express before.
The profound and heart-wrenching conversations in that hayloft are delivered by an impeccable ensemble cast that includes Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy and Michelle McLeod, with Buckley as the standout. Each of the women they play has a distinct character and something important to say: One wants to stay with her abusive husband, one wants revenge, one says forgiveness is better than revenge. Most of the dialogue feels natural, but if the film has a flaw, it’s how the constraints of time force the dialogue to move too quickly.
The film’s exceptional acting and writing are powerful on their own, but they are given a greater weight by Hildur Guðnadóttir’s superb score and Luc Montpellier’s extraordinary cinematography. With colors desaturated and light kept to a minimum, the film is imbued with a sense of unreality, of being located out of time and place, a world apart (which could be anywhere) in which people who have been treated as slaves contemplate what it might mean to be free. The lack of motorized transportation and electronic devices aids in the creation of this unique setting, as does the lack of any mention of Mennonites or Bolivia.
While Mennonites are not identified as such (Mennonite viewers will have no trouble making that identification), the Christian faith of the women is clearly and positively presented, which is remarkable given the many flaws of this patriarchal Christian community. Agata, the oldest, talks about pacifism as the central tenet of their faith and as the reason they must not respond with violence. Scripture references are used throughout to encourage, not to condemn.
I believe Polley made the correct choice in not specifying a location, but it does come at a cost. Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, a journalist who worked on the Bolivian story for years, reports not all of the guilty men were arrested and rapes in the Manitoba colony continue. She believes the film misses an opportunity to alert viewers to the ongoing situation in Bolivia.
Women Talking is an amazing piece of filmmaking that has much to contribute to discussions on trauma healing and sexual violence. It deserves even more praise than it has received. Despite being dialogue-heavy (it would make a great play), it is always captivating. And despite the dark tone of its subject matter, its lack of graphic images and details make it relatively safe viewing for most Mennonite audiences and even church groups where patriarchy is a safe subject for discussion.
Women Talking is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content including sexual assault, bloody images and some strong language.
Vic Thiessen of St. Stephen, New Brunswick, worked in Mennonite organizations for 30 years and taught a film course at St. Stephen’s University.