Saturday, September 16, 2017

TIFF ’17: Simulation

They are like characters in a Persian Pirandello play, but at least they are well accessorized. Existence is absurd and tragic, yet everyone sports ultra-sparkly blue boots. It is not realistic, but it is not meant to be. Probably the only thing true to life is the gut-punching conclusion, but that comes relatively early in Abed Abest’s experimental, reverse-sequence Simulation (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

Abest starts with the third act and then rewinds to the second and first. Yes, it ends badly, but that is what you should expect if you’ve been dragged down to an Iranian police station. Living in Abadan near the Iraqi border means the Iran-Iraq War remains high in people’s consciousness, even for Abed and his two delinquent friends, Aris and Vahim, who are all far too young to have served. They have been arrested for causing disturbance of the home of Esi, a well-to-do merchant who is plenty old enough to remember the war.

The exact nature of their relationship is sketchy, but you probably would not call them friends. For obvious reasons, the tell-tale signs are double or triple coded, but we start to suspect Esi is somewhat openly closeted and the three young punks are pretending to be on the down-low to get close to him for nefarious, non-sexual purposes.

The action takes place on a stripped-down stage that is Spartan to the point of being surreal. Despite the deliberately “staged” presentation, Abest’s restless camera and distorted sound effects constantly bust us out of the proscenium arch. He does everything humanly possible to undermine the on-screen drama, yet somehow we get pulled in anyway.

Simulation partly derives its potency from the hot-button issues that divide contemporary Iranian society. Regardless of his sexuality, we can infer Esi is relatively wealthy and more secularly inclined in his values. On the other hand, Abed and company have little prospects, but even though they hypocritically indulge in alcohol and drugs, they most likely voted for Ahmadinejad, if they were old enough.

Despite playing a character at least twenty years older than himself, without the benefit of special make-up or costuming, Daniyal Khojasteh is terrific as old Esi. It is a portrayal of rage and dignity that leaves a deep impression. As Abed, Aris, and Vahin, Abest, Majid Yousefi, and Vahid Rad personify alienated malevolence, but Abest somewhat humanizes his namesake through Abed’s relationship with his adoring niece.

Frankly, Simulation is considerably more accessible than it sounds. There really isn’t that much not to get. However, Abest’s bold aesthetics will inevitably put off many viewers. Nonetheless, it is rather invigorating to watch him go for broke and mostly pull it off. Highly recommended for adventurous viewers, Simulation screens again tomorrow (9/17) as part of this year’s TIFF.