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An arduous task faces the protagonists Terrestrial verses (Ayeh haye zamini): Each of them is trying to reason with a government bureaucrat or other important authority figure. They are all residents of Tehran, and there is something specific to Iran in the oppressive regulations and catch-22s that stand in their way, but there is also a universal resonance in the growing madness and grim implications.
In 10 of the film’s 11 thinly interwoven segments, a single character confronts an off-screen interlocutor. The fixed camera holds them in an unwavering embrace as each tries to make sense of arbitrary rules and demands. Inspired by the intricate rhymes of ghazal, a classic form of Persian poetry, writer-directors Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatami have constructed a thoroughly modern work of bracing conciseness, elegance and deadpan humour, which throbs with pain and indignation at the absurdity of authoritarian dictates that aim to crush spirits.
A fine distillation of fierce deadpan humor and righteous anger.
Place: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Launch: Majid Salehi, Gohar Kheirandish, Farzin Mohades, Sadaf Asgari, Hossein Soleimani, Faezeh Rad, Bahram Ark, Sarvin Zabetian, Arghavan Shabani, Ardeshir Kazemi
Directors-writers: Ali Asgari, Alireza Khatami
1 hour and 17 minutes
Terrestrial verses, which takes its title from a poem by 20th-century iconoclast Forugh Farrokhzad, spans from birth to death, beginning with the frustrated efforts of a new father (Bahram Ark) to register a name for his infant son. The next figure is a vivacious girl of about 8 years old (Arghavan Shabani), and they grow progressively as the film moves from one sequence to another. Deeply intrusive lines of questions open up. Bizarre demands and illogical reasoning are expressed by the invisible figure of each cartoon, in most cases an official interviewer. “I’m here to help you,” declares the government employee as he thwarts that young father’s intentions every time. But hope also blossoms in the good questions, often imbued with healthy sarcasm, that the various protagonists ask. Their disbelief is contained but growing, and in some cases their alarm explodes into quiet defiance.
Most openly daring, a teenager (Sarvin Zabetian) called into the principal’s office because she’s been seen with a boy — on a motorcycle! – she also has the last word. Her audacity is productive because she, it seems, has a card to play involving the hypocrisy of her would-be punisher.
Delving into issues of state surveillance and restrictive policies targeting women, the next segment involves Sadaf (Sadaf Asgari), a 20-year-old trying to recover her car – impounded because CCTV footage shows her driving around without the hijab. (The protest movement sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for allegedly violating the hijab laws, had already started when the directors started making this film). she does her job and is more interested in her lunch than in the political implications of the policy she is applying against a colleague.
No hijab would be required for 30-year-old Faezah (Faezeh Rad) if she is hired by the private company whose advert she replied. But it quickly becomes apparent that no matter how generous the benefits on offer, she would be working for a boss that is not only sexist but also predatory.
The indiscretion also affects men, in particular Farbad (Hossein Soleymani), whose driving license application turns into a ridiculous and disturbing inquiry by a bureaucrat who has apparently appointed himself the arbiter of normalcy. Farbad’s tattoos (of lines from Rumi) capture the interviewer’s disapproving interest, which flows into perverted fascination.
The situation faced by Ali (Farzin Mohades), a middle-aged filmmaker seeking a permit to shoot his film, is perhaps the most obvious of the cartoons, and also the most familiar to anyone who has witnessed, with alarm, the persecution of the Iranian government by directors Jafar Panahi, Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Aleahmad. And certainly Asgari and Khatami, who collaborated on the screenplay of the first feature film of 2022, Until tomorrowdramatizing the clash between repressive tradition and personal choice in Iran, have had their own surreal encounters with the Ministry of Culture.
Mohades’ performance is animated by a mild exasperation as the official assures him that he has no problem with the core of the proposed film, only with the script, the title and the psychological underpinnings. Perhaps, he suggests, Ali could instead tell a story from the Koran.
The actors are all perfect, etching thoroughbred characters into scenes 10 minutes or less. In true poetic spirit, there is not a word or moment wasted. From the layered sound design (by Alireza Alavian) — setting the scene with a cacophony of voices and traffic noise as Tehran begins another day — to the design contributions that define places and characters (Hamed Aslani and Morvarid Kashian) and the graceful precision of cinematography (Adib Sobhani) and editing (Ehsan Vaseghi), Terrestrial Verses it is a marvel of powerful understatement.
With its searing flashes of courage and speeches in the face of totalitarian edicts and fundamentalism, the film offers hope. 8-year-old Selena’s biting responses in an early segment are encouraging. In the clothing store where she does a perky version of Alley Cat in front of a mirror, listening to pop tunes through glittery earphones, her off-camera mother discusses the school uniform she has come to buy, and the saleswoman checks what is decreed for female students. Restrictions start with the colors Selena loves. The comical/heartbreaking vision of her being engulfed in an oversized garment and veil is the vision of a light going out. It’s a warning to all of us.