Wednesday, January 06, 2016

PSIFF ’16: Atomic Heart

As part of his 2009 fiscal reform package, Ahmadinejad offered a subsidy of roughly fifteen dollars to all Iranians, but somehow supporters of his political party seemed to be the only one who got it. It doesn’t mean anything to Arineh and Nobahar, since their relatives will be claiming theirs. However, it will make it impossible to withdraw money on the night of the mass deposit. That will be dashed inconvenient when their night on the town takes a surreal turn in Ali Ahmadzadeh’s indescribably weird Atomic Heart (clip here), which screens during the 2016 Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Arineh and Nobahar much prefer western style toilets—and who can blame them. They will wax poetic about them, claiming they were in fact an Iranian invention. However, their riffing often sounds like it holds a doth-protest-too-much sarcasm. Regardless, they probably wouldn’t be in a film that wears its Pink Floyd references on its sleeve, if they were not somewhat progressively inclined. They certainly aren’t getting anything from Ahmadinejad and they understand only too well why their friend Kami is immigrating to Australia. Unfortunately, shortly after picking him up from the side of the road, Arineh has a minor fender-bender.

Typically, these matters are resolved on the streets of Tehran with a quick cash payment. Of course, that is not an option tonight, thanks to the big “welfare” payout, as Arineh mockingly calls it. However, a stranger comes along, who eventually pays off the other driver, after snarkily observing for a while. As strangers go, he is particularly strange—and intense. He has no car of his own, but wherever the two women go, he mysteriously appears. They are in his debt and he is not about to let them forget it, but he will beat the long way around the bush before explaining how he intends to collect. First, he will introduce them to his old friend Saddam Hussein, who is supposedly still alive, living in hiding in his favorite city in the world: Tehran.

Whether demonic, extraterrestrial, psychotic, or some combination of the three, the stranger is one of the smoothest, slickest, creepiest characters you will ever want to meet on film. Mohammad Reza Golzar (former guitarist for the Persian pop band Arian) calls and raises every Tarantino movie ever with his sinisterly charismatic, pop-culture reference-dropping monologues. He is absolutely electric. Atomic Heart will leave most viewers reeling he is a major reason why.

On the flip side, Mehrdad Sedighiyan is almost impossibly laid back as the laconic Kami, but quite memorably so. In between, Taraneh Alidoosti and Pegah Ahangarani bicker and banter together in perfect synch. It is obvious they are smart, but frustrated by life, choosing aimless mediocrity, because why not?

The irony in Atomic Heart is massive, perhaps even cosmic. Ahmadzadeh gives us reasons to believe and doubt the stranger really is some kind of being from beyond and the world is on the brink of an apocalypse. Then again, it probably often feels that way in Tehran. One of the oddest, most wonderfully unsettling films to come out of Iran in recent years, Atomic Heart screens this Saturday (1/9) and Sunday (1/10), as part of this year’s PSIFF.