Film Review: Women Talking
Written and directed by Sarah Polley
Distributed by: United Artists Releasing, 2022
Set in an isolated, unnamed religious community, Women Talking opens with one woman, Ona, awakening with the realization she had been raped. She’s one of dozens of women and girls that men of the colony have raped in their beds at night. Two male attackers are caught and sent to a local jail, and all the colony’s men go to bail them out. The women, left alone in the colony, call a vote that serves as the basis for the film: Do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. A group of women gather in a barn’s hayloft to reach consensus and devise a plan.
Written and directed by Sarah Polley and based on Mariam Toews’ eponymous 2018 novel, Women Talking is a story of faith, forgiveness, violence, power, and love. The women confront the violence that surrounds them and their own complicity in it. They find guidance in their faith, yet come to recognize its patriarchal paradoxes. The women can neither read nor write, yet eloquently express vulnerability, anger, and grief. They challenge each other to understand not just what they’re fighting to destroy, but what they’re fighting for: a vision of self-determination and, I suggest, an articulation of reproductive justice.
Watching this film, I found myself whispering to my sister, “I have been at this meeting.” I could have cast this film with people I struggle alongside in my work for Catholic women’s ordination. While the details of the physical violence these characters endure are particular to this film, the spiritual violence of patriarchy is familiar to many Catholics. Certainly, we have asked ourselves again and again: What parts of our faith bring justice, and what parts are tools of oppression? What trauma have we inherited? What is our responsibility in healing pain?
In fact, I hear the question, “Why do you stay?” almost daily. It is a question I ask myself, too. My answer has changed over time, but today, I find the question too small. For me, “staying” is not static but an enduring commitment to bear witness to the injustices in the church. I benefit from a long tradition of feminist theology that reclaims and asserts women as protagonists, priests, and prophets — image-bearers of Christ who hear God’s call to equality and liberation. And therefore, I stay in my faith. I stay in the sacramental life and theological tradition of the church. And I stay with women on the prophetic edges, in all their beautiful complexity, pain, and resiliency. Yet in staying on that edge, you also leave something behind, a tension the film portrays in depth.
"I stay with women on the prophetic edges, in all their beautiful complexity, pain, and resiliency. Yet in staying on that edge, you also leave something behind, a tension the film portrays in depth."
— Kate McElwee
Polley’s reimaging of the colony women’s moral interiors comes to life through her powerful script, for which she won the 2023 Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. Set largely in one room, the film has the intimacy and pace of a stage production, and much of the dialogue comes directly from Toews’ novel. However, while the uniqueness of showing women simply talking cannot be overstated, the dialogue can creep into soliloquy, and while beautiful, can turn the characters into symbolic message-bearers rather than fully formed characters. Nevertheless, the dialogue is deeply effective.
Although the characters do not have the feminist footnotes, the barn is a laboratory of feminist theology, of women-church — and its limits — in praxis. One of the most powerful moments in the film is when the character Ona, played by Rooney Mara, articulates the world they would want their children to inhabit:
Men and women would make all the decisions for the colony collectively. Women would be allowed to think. Girls would be taught to read and write. The schoolhouse must display a map of the world so that we can begin to understand our place in it. A new religion, taken from the old, but focused on love, would be created of the colony. Our children would be safe.
In addition to its stellar script, the film invites viewers into a sacred space of women not just talking to one another, but loving one another. We witness women ministering in the laying on of hands, listening, interpreting Scripture, and affirming their relationship with God — a God who sees them, a God who knows justice, and a God who will find them if and when they leave the colony — without men as intermediaries.
"One of the most powerful moments in the film is when the character Ona, played by Rooney Mara, articulates the world they would want their children to inhabit."
Women Talking is inspired by true events, first reported by Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, that took place in a Mennonite community in rural Bolivia. Between 2005 and 2009, men in the colony raped more than 100 girls and women they sedated with cow anesthetic. Court-ordered medical reports revealed the survivors ranged from age 3 to 60, including disabled and pregnant women, one of whom was forced into early labor by her rapist, her brother. In the film, Polley chose to show only the aftermath of such violence, casting a haunting shadow over the colony.
Friedman-Rudovsky returned to the community years after the trial and learned that, despite the convictions, widespread sexual violence continues. Following the trial, the community offered neither trauma counseling nor therapy. Isolated by language barriers, the women would have had to weigh social and personal costs to reach counselors beyond the colony.
This film offers a privileged glimpse of women in an upper room forging a path toward reconciliation with themselves, their faith, and the community. Bearing witness to the pervasive pain and violence of patriarchy is a step on the journey of our collective healing. If women talking makes that more mainstream, well, let’s keep talking.