Monday, February 12, 2018

Tehran Taboo: Sex and the Single Revolutionary Islamic Girl

It is like an underground Sex and the City, but consenting adults run the risk of arrest and torture at the hands of the morality police. Tehran is just as cosmopolitan and randy as any major city, but Islamist hypocrisy and misogyny has a poisonous effect on human relationships. Three middle class urban women try to negotiate the sexually charged terrain of the capital city in Ali Soozandeh’s bold animated feature, Tehran Taboo (trailer here), which opens at Film Forum on Valentine’s Day.

Pari must work as a prostitute to survive, because her incarcerated husband refuses to consent to a divorce or sign her employment applications. Ironically, Pari and scores of her colleagues walk the streets fairly openly, because the morality police prefers to crack down on couples holding hands. The Islamic Court judge will not grant her a divorce without the acquiescence of her deadbeat husband, but he offers to make her his kept woman instead.

As part of the deal, Pari and her young mute son Elias move into an upscale flat owned by the upstanding jurist. Though Pari is cagey about her own circumstances, she quickly befriends Sara, the pregnant wife of Mohsen, an entitled banker. She yearns to pursue a career of her own, but he categorically forbids it, using the pregnancy and her previous miscarriages as an excuse.

Meanwhile, electronica DJ Babak finds himself living the longest, most awkward morning after, when his hook-up from the previous night insists he fund her hymen reconstruction surgery. It seems Donya has a very large, possibly mobbed-up fiancé, who is expecting to marry a virgin.

Eventually, Pari will take a big sisterly interest in both Donya and Babak, but unfortunately, she can mostly offer moral support, rather than the financial kind. Nevertheless, Soozandeh brings his cast together in a convincingly organic manner, rather than contriving ways for their paths to cross. At various times, each woman is both a victim and a schemer, but the deck is always stacked against them.

The Iranian-born, Germany-based Soozandeh, who helped animate segments of the remarkable documentary The Green Wave, is shockingly frank, at least by Iranian standards. To put it in perspective, the film starts with Pari trying to perform a sex act often denoted by two letters on a flaccid cabbie, with the silently jaded Elias sitting in the back seat. Yet, through the use a child’s still somewhat innocent perspective, Soozandeh consciously embraces the tradition of classic Persian cinema.

Nevertheless, there is no denying the predatory and base nature of the men exploiting Pari, Sara, and Donya. By forcing sexual relations underground and under the table, they become effectively severed from the strictures of respectable society. In effect, only the law of the jungle applies.

Yet, nobody is entirely a victim (especially not Pari), because Soozandeh has drawn such distinctive and multi-dimensional characters. There are not merely symbols, they are women with stories to tell (or rather try to keep secret). You would think the animation would provide a protective layer between the film’s provocative subject matter and the contributing cast, but Soozandeh’s use of rotoscoping techniques means there are indeed bravely identifiable performances to be seen throughout Taboo. Even through the transformative animation, Elmira Rafizadeh’s work as Pari is remarkably earthy and gutsy, while Zahra Amir Ebrahimi is quietly devastating as Sara. Yet, it is the silent indicting gaze of Bilal Yasar’s Elias that will truly haunt viewers.

Soozandeh largely focuses on sexual/gender iniquities, but he does not ignore other forms of institutionalized injustice, such as the pointless censorship of Babak’s music and the shocking sight of bodies swaying from the gallows at a public execution. Soozandeh holds a rotoscoped mirror up to contemporary Iran and forces viewers to give it a long, hard look. The result is a viscerally powerful experience that both seduces and horrifies. It is an outstanding film, definitely in the tradition of Persepolis and The Breadwinner, but clearly intended for mature audiences. Very highly recommended, Tehran Taboo opens this Wednesday (2/14) in New York, at Film Forum. Happy Valentine’s Day.