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Everything you ever wanted to know about the fruit picking business in Iran is revealed in Orange Days (Rooz-haye Narenji), an impeccably made drama that fails to ignite. Glammed-down stars Hadieh Tehrani and Ali Mosaffa, both excellent here, give a human face to scenes of hard labor and financial desperation.The relentless focus on work and the use of handheld camera and often natural light recalls the Dardenne brothers, with the difference that the heroic protag of this tale is a woman contractor who pays her workers a minimum wage and fires the unruly.
This is the first narrative feature directed by Arash Lahooti, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jamiteh Darolshafaie. The helmer’s earlier work in documentaries is evident in the realistic atmosphere, which persuasively grounds the story of a woman who takes risks and pushes her way ahead in an all-male world through sheer grit. Its bow in Toronto’s Discovery section should open the door to festival life.
From the first shot of Aban (Tehrani) standing all alone in the middle of a huge empty warehouse, Lahooti plants us in the heart of the local fruit picking business and suggests the heroine’s inner need to go it alone. All business, fists clenched and unsmiling, she stands up to the villainous big boss who farms out work to subcontractors like her. She tussles over the contract for a large orchard with her slimy competitor, Kazem, each trying to outbid the other. The fact that Aban is a woman is not insignificant, but she’s such a tough cookie that no one dares to bring up the obvious. It boils down to how many workers the two bidders have, and Aban gets the contract. Will she succeed in picking the orchard clean in a scant 10 days, with a crew of just 30 women, and the men all against her? That’s the rest of the film.
Aban is a pillar of strength and determination, rising before dawn to pick up her workers in a truck. Dressed with simple chic, little makeup and no relaxed moments to win the audience over, Tehrani is still riveting as a middle-class woman from the provinces who gambles her home and her marriage on completing a task. Though Aban spurs her tired pickers on and fights with them when they go on strike, even firing a key worker, she also shows a compassionate streak in her dealings with two women in difficulty, a young girl with a baby and another trying to kick addiction.
It sounds like a feminist tract but doesn’t play out quite that obviously, as Aban grimly overcomes a growing list of obstacles and setbacks. Perhaps as surprising as her ability to navigate a man’s world is the quiet role assumed by her tolerant husband Majid (Ali Mosaffa, star of Asghar Farhadi’s The Past). In Mosaffa’s beautifully nuanced performance that never explodes into high drama, Majid puts up silent resistance to her more daring moves, like mortgaging all their property. But he stands by her side and defends her with masculine vigor when required. Their fraying marriage provides an important subplot to the main story of getting oranges into crates, but it is not used by the filmmakers to punish Aban for being uppity and self-assertive; it’s just one more problem she has to deal with.
Tech work is all very fine, giving the film a look of moody class and keeping the focus on Aban, as it should be.
Cast: Hediaeh Tehrani, Ali Mosaffa, Mehran Ahmadi, Alireza Ostadi, Zhila Shahi, Sadaf Asgari, Roya Hosseni, Amin Golesfaneh, Akram Alamdar, Leili Farhadpour
Director: Arash Lahooti
Screenwriters: Arash Lahooti, Jamiteh Darolshafaie
Producer: Alireza Ghasemkhan
Executive producer: Shahnam Shahbaz Zadeh
Director of photography: Farshad Mohammadi
Production designer: Fazel Jian
Editor: Mehdi Hosseinvand
Music: Christoph Rezaie
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
World sales: Iranian Independents
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