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A daunting task faces the protagonists in Terrestrial Verses (Ayeh haye zamini): Each of them is trying to reason with a government bureaucrat or other self-important authority figure. They’re all residents of Tehran, and there’s something specific to Iran in the oppressive regulations and catch-22s that hinder them, but there’s universal resonance, too, in the escalating lunacy and bleak implications.
In 10 of the feature’s 11 subtly interlocking segments, a single character faces an offscreen interlocutor. The fixed camera holds each one in an unwavering embrace as they try to make sense of arbitrary rules and demands. Inspired by the intricate rhymes of ghazal, a classic form of Persian poetry, writer-directors Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatami have constructed a thoroughly modern work of bracing concision, elegance and blistering deadpan humor, one that pulses with sorrow and outrage over the absurdity of authoritarian dictates that aim to crush souls.
Cast: Majid Salehi, Gohar Kheirandish, Farzin Mohades, Sadaf Asgari, Hossein Soleimani, Faezeh Rad, Bahram Ark, Sarvin Zabetian, Arghavan Shabani, Ardeshir Kazemi
Director-screenwriters: Ali Asgari, Alireza Khatami
1 hour 17 minutes
Terrestrial Verses, which takes its title from a poem by 20th century iconoclast Forugh Farrokhzad, cycles from birth to death, beginning with the frustrated efforts of a new father (Bahram Ark) to register a name for his infant son. The next figure is a spirited girl of about 8 (Arghavan Shabani), and they grow progressively older as the film moves from one sequence to the next. Deeply intrusive lines of questioning unfold. Bizarre requirements and illogical reasoning are expressed by each vignette’s unseen figure, in most cases an officious interviewer. “I am here to help you,” the government clerk declares as he stymies that young father’s intentions at every turn. But hope blooms too in the good questions, often laced with healthy sarcasm, that various protagonists ask. Their disbelief is contained but rising, and in some cases their alarm bursts into quiet defiance.
The most overtly daring, a teenage girl (Sarvin Zabetian) called into the principal’s office because she was seen with a boy — on a motorcycle! — also has the last word in her interview. Her boldness is productive because, it turns out, she has a card to play involving her would-be punisher’s hypocrisy.
Delving into matters of state surveillance and restrictive policies that target women, the next segment involves 20-something Sadaf (Sadaf Asgari), a rideshare driver trying to retrieve her car — impounded because footage from CCTV cameras shows her riding around with her hijab off. (The protest movement sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, arrested for allegedly violating hijab laws, had already begun when the helmers started making this film.) As Sadaf asserts a right to privacy, the Traffic Department lackey sitting opposite her insists that she’s just doing her job, and is more interested in her lunch than the political implications of the policy she’s enforcing against a fellow female.
No hijab would be required for 30-year-old Faezah (Faezeh Rad) if she’s hired by the private company whose ad she’s answered. But it quickly becomes evident that, however generous the benefits on offer, she’d be working for a boss who’s not only sexist but predatory.
The prying affects men too — notably Farbad (Hossein Soleymani), whose application for a driver’s license devolves into a ludicrous and unsettling inquisition by a bureaucrat who apparently has appointed himself an arbiter of normality. Farbad’s tattoos (of verses by Rumi) capture the interviewer’s disapproving interest, which spirals into perverse fascination.
The situation faced by Ali (Farzin Mohades), a middle-aged filmmaker seeking a shooting permit for his movie, is perhaps the most obvious of the vignettes, and also the most familiar to anyone who has watched, with alarm, the Iranian government’s persecution of directors Jafar Panahi, Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Aleahmad. And surely Asgari and Khatami, who partnered on the screenplay for the former’s 2022 feature, Until Tomorrow, which dramatizes the clash between repressive tradition and personal choice in Iran, have had their own surreal encounters with the Ministry of Culture.
Mohades’ performance is alive with low-key exasperation as the official assures him that he has no issue with the core of his proposed feature — only with the script, the title and the psychological underpinnings. Maybe, he suggests, Ali could tell a story from the Quran instead.
The actors are all pitch-perfect, etching full-blooded characters in scenes of 10 minutes or less. In true poetic spirit, there isn’t a wasted word or moment. From the layered sound design (by Alireza Alavian) — setting the scene with a cacophony of voices and traffic noise as Tehran begins another day — to the place- and character-defining design contributions (Hamed Aslani and Morvarid Kashian) and the graceful precision of the cinematography (Adib Sobhani) and editing (Ehsan Vaseghi), Terrestrial Verses is a marvel of potent understatement.
With its piercing glimpses of courage and backtalk in the face of totalitarian edicts and fundamentalism, the film offers hope. The barbed responses of 8-year-old Selena, in one of the early segments, are heartening. In the clothing shop where she does a spirited version of the Alley Cat before a mirror, listening to pop tunes through sparkly earphones, her offscreen mother discusses the school uniform she’s come to buy, and the saleswoman ticks off what’s decreed for schoolgirls. The restrictions begin with the colors Selena loves. The comical/heartbreaking sight of her swallowed up by a drab oversize garment and veil is the vision of a light going out. It’s a warning to us all.
Production companies: Taat Films, Seven Springs Pictures, Tell Tall Tale, Cynefilms
Cast: Majid Salehi, Gohar Kheirandish, Farzin Mohades, Sadaf Asgari,
Hossein Soleimani, Faezeh Rad, Bahram Ark, Sarvin Zabetian, Arghavan Shabani, Ardeshir Kazemi
Director-screenwriters: Ali Asgari, Alireza Khatami
Producers: Ali Asgari, Milad Khosravi
Director of photography: Adib Sobhani
Production designer: Hamed Aslani
Costume designer: Morvarid Kashian
Editor: Ehsan Vaseghi
Composer: Masoud Fayazzadeh
Sound designer: Alireza Alavian
Sound recordists: Abdolreza Heydari, Iman Bazyar
International sales: Films Boutique
1 hour 17 minutes
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