Tuesday, May 12, 2015

UCLA Celebration of Iranian Cinema: Melbourne

Some of us saw it way back at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, but the anticipated distribution of Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly hit a bit of a snag. Long story short, it only recently opened at Film Forum, well after A Separation triumphed at the Oscars. It still holds up. In fact, it is worth revisiting anew considering the extent director-screenwriter Nima Javidi’s feature debut feels like a direct response and an intentional one-upping of Farhadi’s film. Regardless of thematic similarities, Javidi’s Melbourne has its own distinctive identity. Los Angeles patrons can judge that to their own satisfaction this Friday when Melbourne (trailer here) screens as part of the soon to conclude UCLA Celebration of Iranian Film.

Amir and Sara are a promising young couple who are leaving Tehran for three years of post-grad study in the titular Melbourne. No seriously, they are really coming back. So they constantly reassure friends and family—and initially they probably really mean it. They are a whirlwind of activity packing and closing up their flat, but they agree to do a favor for a neighbor without really thinking very much about. Unfortunately, this will lead to tragedy.

Javidi drops the bomb in the first act, but it surely makes for a better viewing experience if you are not anticipating it. The Elly reference is enough of a hint. There will be considerable recriminations exchanged by Amir and Sara, before their suspicions start turning elsewhere. Regardless of blame, they just can’t own up to the situation. Therefore, they just keep digging themselves a deeper hole with each new development.

Although Javidi is dealing with essentially one set, Melbourne never feels stagey because of the skillfulness with which he directs the constant traffic in and out of the flat. Sound is also a crucial element to the film’s mounting intensity, with each ringing cellphone, landline, and intercom further jangling the audience’s nerves. It is enough to make you pull your hair, right along with Amir and Sara.

As Sara, Negar Javaherian is so realistic and so painfully conflicted, the headscarf she is forced to wear practically disappears. It is a truly universal performance, yet Payman Moaadi (whose credits include Elly, A Separation, and the unlikely Last Knights) is even more devastating alongside her. His work in the closing sequence has a quiet power that is hard to shake off.

Maybe you think you know where Melbourne is headed and strictly speaking you might be right (Australia, maybe?), but it is a draining journey. Javidi shows tremendous talent and even greater potential, but many of the reviews and the festival poster are too spoilery, so perhaps this should be your final word on the film if you ever plan to see it. Highly recommended, Melbourne screens this Friday (5/15) at the Billy Wilder Theater, as part of the UCLA Celebration of Iranian Cinema, also including Rakshan Bani-Etemad’s equally powerful Tales on Saturday (5/16).