Saturday, May 14, 2016

UCLA Celebration of Iranian Cinema ’16: Wednesday, May 9

They love wrestling in Iran, but nothing is more competitive than the contest launched by a would be philanthropist to determine who has the most wretched existence. To the “lucky winner” goes the potentially soul-saving prize of thirty million tomans (roughly ten grand). However, the emotionally damaged benefactor is caught flat-footed by the overwhelming volume of applicants and the extreme depths of their despair. At least misery will have its company in Vahid Jalilvand’s Wednesday, May 9 (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 UCLA Celebration of Iranian Cinema.

When Jalal put his ad in the paper announcing the open call for prospective recipients, he never expected the kind of bedlam that resulted. Upset by the commotion and clearly uneasy with the potential civic-religious implications of his charity, the Tehran coppers briefly haul Jalal off for some quality time at the station. None of that matters to Leila. She was once engaged to the older Jalal (obviously through an arrangement), but eventually married her now enfeebled husband, who desperately needs an operation she cannot pay for.

The second contestant is Setareh, an orphaned young woman who lives with her snobby aunt and abusive cousin Esmaeel. She secretly married Morteza, the hard working building superintendent her aunt rebuffed on several occasions, but her deception has been discovered. Ironically, when Esmaeel and a friend jump Morteza on the streets, the cousin is the one who gets hurt, resulting in prison time and a blood money judgement against Morteza.

Nobody ever said life was fair in Iran. Institutionalized misogyny does not help much either. As seen in prior films, the Iranian legal system again seems perversely engineered to render the most unjust verdicts, which in some respects it was. Unlike Farhadi’s A Separation, misery cuts across the strata of social class. Everyone is miserable, but some are more miserable than others, which begs the question that seems to be quietly hinted at within the margins of the film: if Iran is so faithful, why has it been so poorly repaid?

As Leila and Setareh, established screen star Niki Karimi and debuting co-star Sahar Ahmadpour are a devastating tag-team combo, conveying a wide array of pain and humiliation. To some extent, they can clearly relate to everything that befalls their characters, which is terribly depressing to contemplate (but yields dividends on-screen). Likewise, Amir Aghaei is acutely sad and soulful as Jalal. With time, we come to understand why he does what he does, even though he invariably makes matters worse.

Nobody does blisteringly honest and revealing domestic dramas like auteurist Iranian filmmakers. Although Jalilvand is a television director making his feature debut, he shows a sensitive (yet intermittently sadistic) touch. Highly recommended for patrons of Iranian cinema, Wednesday, May 9 screens this coming Monday (5/16) at the Billy Wilder Theater, as part of UCLA’s annual Iranian film showcase.