Ali Asgari & Alireza Khatami’s Collection of Vignettes Is A Thoughtful Examination Of Injustices Faced In Iran [Cannes]

May 26, 2023

In “Terrestrial Verses,” the first collaboration between co-directors Alireza Khatami and Ali Asgari that was met with applause throughout the entirety of its premiere screening in the Un Certain Regard section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, observes life under Iranian theocracy through the mundane experiences of 12 ordinary people across various ages that are bookended by a prologue and epilogue. As we watch them navigate complex situations related to social repression, the swift 77-minute runtime never misses a beat.
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Confined within a 4:3 aspect ratio — which unsubtly serves as a reflection of the oppressiveness and claustrophobia of the country’s system — the chapters are introduced by title cards displaying the names of each character, followed by segments ranging from six to ten minutes consisting of fixed-camera shots (save for the epilogue, which uses more cinematic notes, such as the transition to widescreen). In these moments, a single character faces an off-screen authority figure, the majority of whom ask intrusive, inappropriate, and increasingly uncomfortable questions.
Taking its title from a poem by Forugh Farrokhzad, “Terrestrial Voices” journeys from birth to death through the eyes of its subjects. It begins with a new father (Bahram Ark) attempting to register his infant son’s name just to be told that the law does not approve the name he and his wife chose (David). The following character, 8-year-old Selena (Arghavan Sabani), who is shopping for school uniforms with her mother as a saleswoman, describes what is considered acceptable for her to wear. It’s heartbreaking to watch her go from dancing to pop music to being told that she can’t wear the colors she likes and trying on oversized garments and veils in which she doesn’t appear to be comfortable.
In one standout chapter, we see Farbod (Hossein Soleimani) getting asked increasingly bizarre questions during a driving license interview that ultimately leads to the topic of his tattoos, where he is asked — more like forced — to show and explain them in order to be granted the license. The comedic penultimate chapter revolves around censorship in film, as an exasperated filmmaker named Ali (Farzin Mohades), whose work is rendered meaningless due to an official’s criticism of his screenplay.
Influenced by the Women, Life, Freedom movement and other events occurring in Iran, “Terrestrial Verses” also focuses on the restrictive policies targeting women through a handful of segments. In one daring chapter, a teenage girl (Sarvin Zabetian) gets called into the principal’s office because she was seen on a motorcycle with a boy. After minutes of questioning, she ultimately revealed that she also had incriminating footage of the principal. In what is perhaps the strongest and most resonant vignette, a young rideshare driver named Sadaf (Sadaf Asgari, who gives a scene-stealing performance) attempts to retrieve her car, which has been impounded as a result of CCTV camera footage showing her driving without her hijab, but has to deal with a worker who cares more about what she’s having for lunch that than the livelihoods of fellow women.
Despite only seeing them for less than 10 minutes, every actor delivers excellent performances that bring a lived-in and fleshed-out quality to each of them. Given their brief appearances, it could have been easy for these people to have felt one-dimensional, but their struggles feel genuine and relatable. Credit must also go to Asgari and Khatami’s precise screenplay, which seamlessly balances deadpan humor with thought-provoking and politically relevant themes of the injustices people face in their daily lives.
By making a choice not to show the figures on the opposite side of the characters, Asgari and Khatami turn them into representatives of a system that seeks to control every aspect of one’s life, especially about their bodies, from what they wear to where they go and how they act. Though the structure of the vignettes can grow repetitive as the film moves along to a scene nearly identical to the one that came before, “Terrestrial Verses” never falters in challenging traditional notions while simultaneously providing a glimmer of hope. [B+]
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