Wednesday, December 31, 2014

PSIFF ’15: Today

Youness is the wrong man, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, but since Iran is still a man’s world, he could get away clean, nonetheless. However, the grouchy old cab-driver is too compassionate for that. A fateful fare could have serious long-term implications in Reza Mirkarimi’s Today (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Youness is the type a cabbie who will just toss out customers if they rub him the wrong way. Yet, he takes pity on the extremely pregnant and considerably panicked Sedigheh. He will even schlep her into the hospital, despite suspecting she has no money for the fare. At this point, he could safely bolt according to Iranian law (as we are later told), but he stays nonetheless.

It is quickly apparent Sedigheh has been physically abused and has neglected her pre-natal care as a result. Naturally, the hospital staff silently accuses Youness. Despite the awkwardness and potential legal ramifications, he accepts their contempt, for Sedigheh’s sake, because as an unaccompanied pregnant woman, she would be even further marginalized by the Iranian medical system.

On its face, Today is a deceptively simple issue-oriented drama, but it makes a deeply eloquent statement on contemporary Iranian society. It is a lot like A Separation with a more fully developed social conscience. It is a bit surprising Iran selected it as their foreign language Oscar submission and utterly baffling how it could miss the shortlist cut. You would had to have seen a heck of a lot of films this year to find nine better than Today.

Perhaps it is too subtle. You really have to pay attention to what is said and what is left unsaid to fully appreciate the positions Youness and Sedigheh are in. It is also fascinating how ghosts from the past loom over the film in strange and unlikely ways. For instance, the hospital in question lacks the latest medical equipment, because it was once part of a larger triage center during the Iran-Iraq War, but has yet to be retrofitted after the adjoining building was closed.

Eschewing cheap theatrics, Parviz Parastui puts on a clinic in how to say more with less as the taciturn Youness. It is a quiet performance, but he has the audience hanging on his every word and gesture. In contrast, Soheila Golestani’s guileless directness and vulnerability are quite arresting. Watching them feels like being there in that slightly shabby hospital in Tehran. That might not sound like a lot of fun, but the net effect is hard to shake off.

While Today is about as character-driven as films get, it is still quite an impressive feat of direction. Mirkarimi has quite a lot of traffic to manage, sort of like a stage farce, except it is deadly serious. It is too bad he will not be getting any Academy love this time around, especially since his previous film A Cube of Sugar had been selected as Iran’s Oscar submission two years ago, until the Islamist government decided to boycott in protest of a low rated youtube video. This is a potent film that directly advocates breaking the pernicious cycle of abuse, but it is probably too complicated for daytime talk show hosts to understand. Highly recommended for everyone else, Today screens this Friday (1/2) and Tuesday (1/6) as part of this year’s PSIFF.