It is the time of Red Wednesday, the Festival of Fire, or Chaharshanbe Suri. Throughout Iran and the Persian diaspora, the Wednesday before Nowruz is a time for families to come together, but that will not be happening in an Asghar Farhadi film. The Oscar-winning director of A Separation and About Elly was never a stranger to family dysfunction. He had already explored some of its extreme manifestations in 2006’s Fireworks Wednesday (trailer here), which re-releases this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.
Rouhi is young cleaning woman working for a temp agency who is just giddy at the prospect of her approaching marriage. The married couple that will employ her today will do everything possible to curb that enthusiasm. Like so many Iranian films, the act of leaving is a major theme in Fireworks. Morteza and Mojdeh will be leaving bright and early the next morning for Dubai, at least for a vacation, but possibly longer. You never know about these things when leaving Iran. Unfortunately, their flat is in state of shambles. Partly, this is a result of the collision Morteza’s fist had with the window the night before.
It was Morteza that retained Rouhi from the agency, but once he returns to the office, Mojdeh tries to dismiss her. Although they definitely get off on the wrong foot, Mojdeh eventually finds work for the guileless girl. She sends her next door to snoop on the woman she suspects is having an affair with Morteza. This is relatively easy to do, since the divorced Simin runs an unregulated beauty salon out of her apartment. Rouhi takes a genuine liking to the semi-scandalous woman, who is already struggling with a landlord determined to evict her. She hardly needs Mojdeh’s neurotic accusations in addition.
According to the Islamist rules governing the Iranian film industry, men and women are not allowed to touch on-screen, but exceptions often seem to slip through, as when the exasperated Morteza strikes out at Mojdeh. It is an ugly moment, but Farhadi frames it in a way that lessens the jarring impact. Morteza immediately regrets his action, but it keeps the audience on-guard for the rest of the film, as well they should be.
There are several Iranian filmmakers who can deftly build tension through claustrophobic family drama, but Farhadi is the master. As soon as Rouhi enters that flat, we get the sense very bad things will inevitably happen. Much like Separation and Elly, Fireworks is an exhausting film that might telegraph some of its twists, but Farhadi still manages to make them feel devastating in the moment. Hadieh Tehrani is absolutely riveting and at times down right harrowing as the overwrought Mojdeh. In telling contrast, Pantea Bahram lends the film grace and dignity as her presumed rival. Taraneh Alidoosti is convincingly immature as Rouhi, but that makes her an appropriately confused witness to the angst and recriminations that unfold.