'No Choice' ('Majboorim'): Film Review | Tokyo 2020

Tokyo Film Festival
It’s a slippery path up the mountain of human rights.

Three good women clash when a determined lawyer takes on the case of a homeless girl against an idealistic doctor in Reza Dormishian’s legal thriller.

Reza Dormishian is one of the most original directors in Iranian cinema, and No Choice (Majboorim) is another example of his ability to enthrall with hard-hitting social critique. Though it doesn’t land the punch in the stomach that made audiences take notice of I’m Not Angry! (social inequality, capital punishment) and Lantouri (acid attacks on women, capital punishment), the story is an engrossing, well-made and well-acted human rights drama cum legal procedural set in the world of Tehran’s homeless population.

This is one female-centered film that happily takes being a woman professional for granted. Stars Fatemeh Motamed-Arya as a respected gynecologist and Negar Javaherian as a firebrand young lawyer face off in powerful roles, while Pardis Ahmadiyeh (Tooman) plays the girl who is the bone of contention. And the drama is all about women’s bodies and their right to choose. The street girl Golbahar (Ahmadiyeh) is a baby-making machine for her pimp Mojtaba, who sells the infants to his clients. All hell breaks loose when they realize her tubes have been tied during a miscarriage operation in the hospital, without her consent.

This discovery is made after a repulsive scene in which the girl is led to a room to spend time with a rotund older man whose wife can’t have a baby. Unlike the surrogate Gypsy mother in the Iranian film Titi, which is also bowing at the Tokyo Film Festival, there is no question of having the sperm and egg implanted — here it’s strictly do-it-yourself. When Golbahar fails to get pregnant (and consider that she had her first baby when she was eleven), they learn the truth.

Defending the girl, while warding off her malevolent protector, is tough attorney Sara Nedayi (Javaherian). She comes from a comfortable middle-class background and is surrounded by supportive men like Dr. Saadat (Parsa Piroozfar), who urge her to calm down. Naturally, the viewer is on her side as she takes ever more dangerous steps on behalf of her pro bono client.

Until, that is, she begins to legally attack the OB-GYN who operated on Golbahar, Dr. Pandar, accusing her of non-consensual tubal ligation. Here the tables turn. In a few telling strokes, Motamed-Arya paints the doctor as a calm professional dedicated to her job and her patients — she even pays for the indigent who otherwise wouldn’t be treated. In fact, she loves her job so much it keeps her away from her family, who have gone abroad. Her life is summed up in a lonely salad dinner in a restaurant.

The moral compass swings back and forth between the lawyer and the doctor; as in other Dormishian films, it’s up to the viewer to decide who’s right. In the end both protags are social activists, but they come at problems from different angles. And the problems they take on, like poverty and homelessness, are so vast that they barely make a dent.

Near the end, Sara is ordered to appear before two prosecutors in a black space, perhaps a police station. She holds her head high and sticks to her guns as they rattle off all the wrong causes she has championed: civil liberties, raising the marriage age, social justice, women’s rights. They sound very much like the themes of the director’s films. As closing advice, they tell her to “go out and make some money," ironically echoing Golbahar’s pimp.

The film may not be a bona fide legal thriller but it has the tension of one, as the net around Dr. Pandar tightens thanks to Sara’s relentless investigation and a cliffhanger ending approaches. The pace does slow down in parts, though, loosening its grip on the viewer.

The camerawork contributes to the feeling of a classy TV crime drama, making generous use of sudden zooms into close-up as the characters exchange significant looks. Also very sophisticated and appealing is DP Aieen Irani’s black-and-white-with-color palette, and composer Kayhan Kalhor’s modernist score that runs from screeching violins to a very melodious traditional song in closing.

Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival
Cast: Fatemeh Motamed-Arya, Negar Javaherian, Pardis Ahmadiyeh, Mojtaba Pirzadeh, Parsa Piroozfar, Bahman Farman Ara, Babak Karimi, Homayoun Ershadi 
Director, screenwriter, producer: Reza Dormishian
Director of photography: Aieen Irani
Production designer:  Amir-Hossein Hadad
Costume designer: Golnaz Golshan
Editor: Haydeh Safi Yari
Music: Kayhan Kalhor
World sales: Iranian Independents
108 minutes