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A visually exquisite monochrome thriller from veteran Iranian writer-director Fereydoun Jeyrani, Asphyxia interweaves classic film noir tropes and slow-burn Hitchcockian suspense into a timely fable about a patriarchal society so rotten that it literally drives women to murder. Fresh from its international premiere at Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn last week, Jeyrani’s chilly mood piece has all the stylistic signifiers of an art house niche item, but its luminous beauty and genre-friendly plot may boost its prospects beyond the festival bubble.
In an unnamed city plunged into endless darkness by icy blizzards and electrical power cuts, Sahra (Elnaz Shakerdoust) lives alone in a crumbling apartment block scheduled for imminent demolition, which will leave her homeless. Though unmarried and impoverished, she is not quite desperate enough to yield to the sickly, aging gargoyles that her neighbor Zohrah (Mahaya Petrosian) tries to press upon her as potential sugar daddies. “Love is just a legend nowadays,” she concludes bitterly, “no one falls in love anymore”
Sahra works as head nurse in a rundown psychiatric hospital, which resembles a gothic haunted mansion of flickering candlelight and deep shadows. Her latest patient is Nassim (Pardis Ahmadieh), the beautiful young wife of broodingly handsome Masoud (Navid Mohammadzadeh). Nassim appears mute and catatonic, but it soon transpires she is faking her symptoms to escape her cruel husband. In private, she begs Sohra to protect her from Masoud, claiming he has murderous plans to prevent her from leaving him and thus cutting him off from her rich father’s fortune.
Nassim enlists Sahra’s help in her scheme to escape her collapsing marriage, tempting her with the promise of a new apartment in one of her father’s buildings. But Masoud stumbles on the plot and pressures the nurse to switch loyalties with his alternative version of the story. Sensing Sahra’s financial and emotional vulnerability, he seduces her into a treacherous triple cross that begins with the most menacing marriage proposal ever seen onscreen and ends in murder.
Unfolding with all the bleak inevitability of Greek tragedy, Asphyxia is a little too thin on surprise plot twists, and would have benefited from some deeper psychological shading to its broadly outlined, murkily motivated characters. Even in her desperate state as a second-class citizen in a male-dominated society, Sohra seems a little too gullible and malleable, too much of an innocent pawn in Masoud and Nassim’s lethal chess game.
That said, Jeyrani’s fatalistic fable maintains a steady hum of low-voltage suspense while Masoud Salami’s elegantly composed monochrome cinematography never looks less than ravishing, repeatedly framing Shakerdoust’s freckled face like an Old Master painting. Karen Homayounfar’s mournfully spare chamber-orchestra score, the bitterly ironic use of the syrupy romantic ballad “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” as a recurring motif and stark sound design that evokes the brutal wintry setting are all classy touches, deepening that vintage noir sense that Asphyxia takes place in an ice-cold amoral cosmos where goodness is crushed and evil goes unpunished.
Production companies: Ticket, Persia Film Distribution
Cast: Elnaz Shakerdoust, Navid Mohammadzadeh, Mahaya Petrosian, Pardis Ahmadieh, Poulad Kimiaei, Parviz Pourhossein
Director-screenwriter-producer: Fereydoun Jeyrani
Cinematographer: Masoud Salami
Editor: Bahram Dehghan
Music: Karen Homayounfar
Venue: Black Nights Film Festival, Tallinn
Sales company: Persia Film Distribution
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