Thursday, April 05, 2018

SFFILM ’18: No Date, No Signature

Terhan drivers might spend even more time in their cars than Angelenos. The Iranian capital might just boast the world’s most congested traffic. Reflecting that driving culture, entire Iranian films have been shot in cars, such as Jafar Panahi’s Taxi and Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten. It stands to reason there are plenty of auto accidents, but Dr. Kaveh Nariman’s incident is particularly tragic, assuming it really was the cause of a young boy’s death. The uncertainty will be agonizing in Vahid Jalilvand’s No Date, No Signature (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 San Francisco International Film Festival.

It really wasn’t Nariman’s fault. A reckless driver side-swiped him on the left, forcing him into the motorbike carrying Moosa, his wife, infant daughter, and young son. Nariman duly pulls over and gives everyone a cursory examination, but he dissuades Moosa from calling the cops, because his insurance has lapsed. Instead, he hands over some money for repairs and offers to admit his son into his clinic at no charge. Perhaps not so surprisingly, Moosa takes the money, but blows off the clinic.

The next night, a report on Moosa’s now deceased son crosses Dr. Nariman’s desk as the local head of legal forensic medicine. According to the autopsy performed by Dr. Sayeh Behbahani (a colleague with whom Nariman has a very complicated and ambiguous relationship), the boy died of botulism. There is no denying he had the disease, but Nariman secretly suspects complications from the accident were the direct cause of death. Nevertheless, the revelation sends the guilt-ridden Moosa off in a blind rage, spoiling for a violent confrontation with the sleazy poultry worker who sold him contaminated chicken under the table.

It is amazing how dexterously Persian cinema handles moral dilemmas. In this case, everything is more intense, because all the players are operating outside the law, or at least stretching the boundaries beyond all recognition. Yet, there is something especially perverse about Dr. Nariman’s case, because the more he damns himself, the worse the outlooks gets for Moosa’s resulting criminal case (for battering the rotten chicken seller senseless—literally). Many times, the audience echoes Dr. Behbahani (or vice versa), asking “what do you think you’re doing,” with mounting alarm, while still weirdly admiring his strange sense of integrity.

Looking a bit like a Persian Trapper John M.D., Amir Aghaee gives a wonderfully subtle and quietly conflicted performance. In contrast, Navid Mohammadzadeh rages like De Niro in his prime as Moosa. Based on his meltdown, we understand how his son’s death was just the culmination of all the emasculating humiliations society had meted out on him over his lifetime. It is a very strong cast, most definitely including Hediyeh Tehrani, who is not merely an audience surrogate as Dr. Behbahani, but also a marginalized professional woman, a concerned friend, and perhaps even a spurned lover. That is a heck of a lot of internal contradictions to balance, but she does a fine job of it.

There is no explicit political commentary in No Date, but it is an Iranian film to its core. Everything that happens makes grim, fatalistic sense, but you could not credibly transpose it into another culture. It also proves it is possible to make a tense, suspenseful film with little or no crime genre elements, per se. Very highly recommended, No Date, No Signature screens Saturday (4/7), Tuesday (4/10), and Wednesday (4/11), as part of this year’s SFFILM.