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One of those curious tales that suddenly sheds light on the darker corners of Iranian society, Mohsen Tanabandeh’s The Oath (screening at the Fajr Film Festival) plunges the viewer into the drama of a feudal judicial system. It starts with the premise of an eye for an eye (the hanging of a murderer) and then introduces the age-old custom of the victim’s family accepting a pay-off in blood money that would let the killer get off scot-free. Alternatively, if the family lets up pressure on the judge, the murderer may never stand trial at all. Though the story never really takes a definite moral stand one way or the other, it has enough drama and vivid characters to find festival favor.
This is the second feature by writer-director Tanabandeh, who made his directing debut with the 2015 comedy Guinness but is better known as an actor whose credits include his award-winning role as the son Azim in Afghanistan’s Oscar submission, Rona, Azim’s Mother. One could argue that The Oath is hardly less surreal than the men who have to ride turkeys in Guinness. But here the stakes are much higher, particularly for the stalwart heroine Razieh (Mahnaz Afshar), and there is little in the way of comic relief.
Almost the entire film takes place in the close confines of a large bus which Razieh has rented at her own expense. She has rustled up the passengers from her close family – cousins, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces — to swear in court that Razieh’s brother-in-law killed his young wife in a moment of jealousy, as was witnessed by two employees on the couple’s farm. What looks like an open-and-shut case is anything but, and if Razieh doesn’t get her crew to court by 9 a.m. the next morning, her sister’s killer will go free. Cajoling and threatening the family, she keeps them aboard the bus and blocks various attempts at mutiny and backing down.
More quaintness: women can’t take the oath unless they are the victim’s next-of-kin, so a good number of femmes on the bus are just along for the ride; however, some men seem to be able to take the oath twice. Local audiences probably know the rules, but more clarity would have been appreciated for non-Iranian viewers. Another complication is the on-going feud between family members over unrelated issues, like a brother who accidentally ran over someone else’s dog.
As the bus, driven by a surly relative, winds its way through hairpin turns on misty country roads, the mysterious atmosphere thickens to perceptible danger. Razieh’s furious husband Khosro (Saeed Aghakani) is following them by car at a distance; he is lobbying for the life of his brother, the accused farm owner. Razieh shouts him down at a rest stop.
The story tends to run away from Tanabandeh at a certain point, becoming increasingly complicated and emotionally overwrought without offering the expected dramatic returns. The turning point comes with a police re-enactment of the crime which stuns everyone; then all concludes abruptly in an unexpected climax which stops short of being exciting.
In the main role, Afshar shows an avenger’s unwavering determination, for whom hanging her brother-in-law amounts to a religious duty. But such one-track motivation ends up making her less credible and sympathetic. Visually the single-set film often lacks excitement, and though the mountainous landscape outside the bus eventually gives way to desert, there are no rewarding glimpses of their destination, the fabled pilgrimage city of Mashhad.
Cast: Mahnaz Afshar, Saeed Aghakhani, Hassan Pourshirazi, Mehran Ahmadi
Director-screenwriter: Mohsen Tanabandeh
Producers: Elham Ghafouri, Jalil Shabani
Director of photography: Touraj Astani
Production designer: Babak Panahi
Costume designer: Farahnaz Naderi
Editor: Khashayar Movahedian
Composer: Yahya Sepehr Shakib
Sales: Persia Film Distribution
Venue: Fajr Film Festival’s Iranian Film Market
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