Friday, June 03, 2022

Atabai, from Iran

Do not call Kazem by his name. He prefers the honorific “Atabai” (sort of like “esquire,” but with more clout) bestowed upon him by his provincial Northwestern ethnic Azerbaijani hometown. The village holds a lot of painful history for him, especially the arranged marriage of Kazem’s younger sister, which ended badly—for her and everyone related to her. Years have passed, but the entire family still carries guilt from her suicide, but nobody more so than their Atabai. After an extended absence he returns to reluctantly face his tragic past in Niki Karimi’s Atabai, opening today in New York.

Kazem has mixed feelings about being home, but he is happy to see his nephew Aydin. He has real affection for the dopey teen, but we soon figure out the well-respected Atabai is also controlling his life, as a way to get back at his sister’s husband. Frankly, Kazem’s relationship with his own aging father is nearly as fraught with complications and baggage.

The returning prodigal once loved and lost during his college years—and still carries the emotional scars. The last thing he wants from his homecoming would be a wife, despite some rather mercenary interest. Yet, a woman with her own tragic reasons to avoid intimacy stirs some long dormant feelings in him.

is a messy but heartfelt film about the long-term effects of grief and trauma. It is easy to identify with Kazem’s family, even though the particulars of their circumstances are very much Iranian—starting with the arranged marriage of his sister, at the distressingly youthful age of fifteen. Arguably, Kazem also gets away with physically lashing out in rage more than he would in Western countries. Being an Atabai has its advantages, but everyone understands where that anger and pain is coming from.

Hadi Hejazifar (who also co-wrote the film with Karimi) is excellent as Kazem. It is slow-burning work that goes to some very dark places, while also exploring his more forgiving, life-affirming side as well. Yoosefali Darydel is also pitch-perfect as his semi-estranged father.

Arguably, some of Karimi’s branching subplots get a little unruly and could stand some pruning. However, there surprisingly clever echoes throughout the script. Every word sounds true, even to viewers unfamiliar with the surrounding cultural context. Highly recommended for anyone who appreciates family dramas and Iranian cinema,
Atabai opens today (6/3) in New York, at the IFC Center.