Though hardly a plea for tolerance, and perhaps guilty of raising a few issues it would rather not address, "Not Without My Daughter" is nonetheless a powerful film about culture clashes that is all too terrifyingly real.
As hyperbole would have it, this is a true story taken directly from today's headlines, with Sally Field starring as Betty Mahmoody, an American woman who finds herself tricked by her Iranian husband, Moody (Alfred Molina), into taking a "vacation" to Iran, though he has no intention of letting her - or their young daughter Mahtob (Sheila Rosenthal) - ever return.Based on Betty Mahmoody's book about her own experiences, "Not Without My Daughter" logically and gradually progresses from a benign beginning to a series of gripping events and is never hampered by what everyone in the audience knows is the obvious ending.
As the film opens, the Mahmoodys live quietly in a small town in Michigan where Moody is a doctor at a local hospital. He is unhappy with his treatment by his fellow doctors, who insensitively make unkind jokes about Moody and his culture, but he is portrayed as a kind and loving husband and father.
Subtly we learn that Moody has been living and working in America, where he received his medical training, for 20 years - and hasn't been home to Iran for a decade. So, when he coaxes his wife to take the trip, Betty caves in, though she has obvious reservations - it is 1984, shortly after the fall of the shah and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and there's hardly a more volatile country on the map.
Upon their arrival in Tehran (the film was shot in Israel), they are immediately surrounded by Moody's large family, and Betty begins to get a taste of what's expected of her, from keeping her body clothed in black and her face and hair covered to acquiescing to her husband's every wish.
Initially, Betty is willing to go along with this for her husband's sake, though she looks forward to the end of their two-week vacation. But on the day they are to return to the United States, Moody announces that they are staying. Part of his insistence has to do with family pressure, but he is also a zealous Muslim at heart and essentially planned the trip to get his family in Iran, knowing that without his consent it would be impossible for Betty and Mahtob to leave.
Naturally, Betty is rebellious, prompting Moody to become physically abusive, even threatening to kill her. Betty decides to go along with things until she can plan an escape. But it won't be easy. The law, religious beliefs and hostile feelings of everyone around her are in Moody's favor.
Sally Field delivers a first-rate performance, at first struggling to understand what appears to be a whole new personality in her husband, then simply resolving to get her daughter and herself back home - whatever it takes. She never reduces the role to histrionics, and the film never falls back on sentimentality.
Alfred Molina, perhaps best known as Indiana Jones' deceitful guide in the opening scenes of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," is also extraordinary, managing to lend depth and sympathy to a character that could have been played merely as a stereotypical villain.
Young Sheila Rosenthal is also quite convincing as their daughter, and the many supporting players in lesser roles are all quite good. (The most recognizable is Roshan Seth, who played Nehru in "Gandhi," as a wealthy Iranian sympathetic to Betty's plight.)
Though the story is naturally tilted toward Betty Mahmoody's point of view, director Brian Gilbert and screenwriter David W. Rintels manage to include a large amount of detail about the lifestyle of Iranian citizens and explore some of the passion behind their customs, which, of course, seem quite repressive to Western audiences. The film may not be politically astute and may at times seem like an emotional diatribe, but it is certainly more balanced than it might have been.
"Not Without My Daughter" - a far too cumbersome title - is rated PG-13 for some violence and a couple of profanities (though probably more for the intensity of the story). The film is not without flaws - occasionally it plays like an issue-of-the-week TV movie - but it's also undeniably compelling. Parents in particular will likely be quite moved.