Based on a true story, Not Without My Daughter is about a woman, Betty Mahmoody (Sally Field), who is married to an Iranian doctor, Moody (Alfred Molina). He convinces her to go with him back to Iran to visit his family, taking their six-year-old daughter with them. The year is 1984, and Betty is naturally hesitant, owing to the recent Iranian hostage crisis and the anti-Americanism that is aflame in that country, but she agrees.
Soon after they get there, the pressures of Iranian culture in general and that of his Iranian family begin to change Moody. He becomes a different person than the one Betty thought she was married to in America. She wants to go back to America, which she is free to do, but Moody will not let her take their daughter back with her. She is told that girls in Iran are sometimes married off as young as eight years old, so leaving her behind is unthinkable. Much of the movie is her struggle to sneak her daughter out of Iran, for which she requires the help of sympathetic Iranians.
There are two unnerving aspects to this movie. The first is the way Moody becomes a different man when he returns to Iran. Or perhaps I should say, he reverts to becoming the man he used to be before immigrating to the United States. The second is the problem Betty has in trying to tell who will help her and who will not. As a result of the differences in the American and Iranian cultures, the ordinary cues we take for granted here in America are not reliable in Iran. The people she thinks might help her turn on her and betray her, while a man she thinks is going to betray her turns out to be acting in her interest and is instrumental in getting her and her daughter safely across the border to Turkey.
I saw Not Without My Daughter over twenty years ago. But just the other night, I happened to watch The Man I Married, which was made in 1940 but set in 1938, just prior to the outbreak of World War II. In that movie, Carol Hoffman (Joan Bennett) is married to a German immigrant, Eric, who wants her and their son Ricky to go on a vacation back to Germany with him to visit his father. Shortly after they arrive, Eric begins to fall under the sway of German culture, and it is not long before he joins the Nazi party. He even falls in love with Freda, who is also a Nazi, whom he wants to marry, and for which reason he wants a divorce from Carol. Carol is disgusted with him and the whole Third Reich, and so she agrees. But then she finds out that Eric will not allow her to take their son Ricky back with her to America, because he wants Ricky to become a Nazi too.
With the help of an American reporter, Kenneth Delane (Lloyd Nolan), she tries to sneak Ricky out, but Eric stops her. Eric’s father is on Carol’s side, and he tells Eric that unless he lets her take Ricky back to America, he will reveal to the Nazis that his mother was a “Jewess.” Freda is there when this is revealed, and she is repelled at the thought of having had an affair with someone who had Jewish blood. Eric and crushed, and Carol takes Ricky and leaves without any resistance.
Carol does not have the same problem Betty did at reading the cultural cues of the people in Germany, probably because German culture is not as different from American culture as Iranian culture is. But in both cases, a man who is one person in America becomes another person when he returns his country of origin. Everyone has had the experience of being a different person around different people, but these movies take that ordinary experience to the next level. Notwithstanding our belief in the integrity of our individual selves, both these movies reveal the disturbing fact that our individuality can be powerfully influenced by the cultural milieu we find ourselves in. Of course, the women in both these movies, having been born in America and spent their whole lives there, are not similarly altered. But the husbands in these movies, having spent a lot of time in both America and their respective countries of origin, are far more susceptible to such influences.