Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sundance ’20: Yalda, a Night of Forgiveness

In Iran, reality TV is a matter of life and death. The traditions of “blood money” and legal retaliation have given rise to real-life shows in which convicts seek pardons from those they have wronged. Young Maryam is one such “contestant,” but her TV appearance will take some unusually dramatic turns in screenwriter-director Massoud Bakhshi’s Yalda, a Night of Forgiveness, which screens during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

It is Yalda, the traditional Zoroastrian feast night, when Iranians celebrate Persian culture. It is not the ideal date for Maryam to beg for forgiveness, but with her execution fast approaching, time is of the essence. Technically, she was only Nasser’s “temporary wife,” a longstanding Iranian relationship that is exactly what it sounds like. Temporary wives have virtually no long-term spousal rights, but legal offspring have inheritance rights, if they are male.

Regardless, Maryam apparently allowed Nasser to die through sins of inaction following an accident. As a result, she was convicted of murder and faces the death penalty, under Iran’s “eye for an eye” criminal justice system. Her only hope is for Nasser’s daughter Mona to pardon her in exchange for blood money. Ayat produces a TV program that facilitates such pardons. There are only two problems: Mona is no mood to forgive and Maryam is not inclined to ask for forgiveness.

Although in her early twenties, the shockingly young-looking Maryam could pass for a girl in her early teens. Regardless, there is clearly something amiss with a society that so readily accepted Nasser’s marriage to a teenaged girl (at the time), especially in an exploitative temporary arrangement. Indeed, much of Yalda’s drama is rooted in the gender and class-based inequalities of Iranian society.

There is no shortage of social criticism in Yalda, but viewers might not notice while watching, because it is so viscerally intense. It follows squarely in the tradition of emotionally-draining, uncompromisingly naturalistic dramas best represented by films like Farhadi’s A Separation. Frankly, Iranian films as a class might just inspire more confidence than any other national cinema, but they are so exhausting, it is difficult to binge on very many in quick succession.

Bakhshi masterfully cranks up the tension and dexterously springs several crises that upend everything in fascinating ways. Yalda is an eye-opening look at contemporary Iran, but it also offers quite a wild ride, by depicting a live TV broadcast completely running off the rails. He creates such a distinctive sense of place, audiences will feel like they know every inch of the TV studio after watching the film. Altogether, it is quite a work of bravura filmmaking.

Sadaf Asgari is frightfully young and vulnerable looking as Maryam, but she also conveys something unpredictable and wild in her that keeps us off balance. Behnaz Jafari is witheringly severe yet profoundly and messily human as Mona, while Babak Karimi is wonderfully sly and cynical as Ayat the producer.

The conclusion falls somewhat flat, but every minute up to that point is a white-knuckle viewing experience. It is often uncomfortable to witness, but in the right kind of way. Highly recommended for fans of Iranian films and the cinema of social engagement, Yalda, a Night of Forgiveness screens today (1/26), Tuesday (1/28), Wednesday (1/29), and Saturday (2/1) in Park City and Thursday (1//30) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.