'Titi': Film Review | Tokyo 2020

'Titi'
Evar Film Studio

'Titi'

Fresh moments amid the conventions.

Iranian director Ida Panahandeh directs actress Elnaz Shakerdoost in another taboo-breaking performance as a Roma surrogate mother.

Ida Panahandeh, who won the first film award in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section for her 2015 Nahid, directs Titi, another rule-breaking portrait of an out-of-the-box Iranian woman. Memorably portrayed by Elnaz Shakerdoost, the TV actress who transitioned to movies with the edge-of-seat Al-Qaeda drama When the Moon Was Full, Titi is a young Roma Gypsy woman who rounds out her earnings as a hospital cleaner by carrying other people’s babies.

Along with the usual clashes between put-down women and entitled males, the film looks at various moral questions from a different viewpoint. Titi’s pain in giving up the baby she’s carrying for a childless couple, for example, runs into a law that says she can go to prison for not honoring her part of the bargain. As the doctor examining Titi puts it — one hopes ironically — when the woman who will soon claim the baby bursts into the room, “the owner is here.” And later, Titi is reminded that “not a cell of that baby belongs to you.”

The film’s theme is the role selflessness plays in a person’s life — caring about other people and humanity at large versus one's own little orchard. Her honest desire to be of service to others is the reason Titi carries other couples’ children to term. The money is incidental; it will help buy cinder blocks to complete the house she is building for her dashing musician-fiancé Amir-Sassan (Houtan Shakiba).

In the hospital, she meets the critically ill Ibrahim Sajedi (Parsa Pirouzfar), a professor of physics who is on the verge of a great discovery regarding black holes, when his tumor returns. When the good-looking prof explains black holes to wide-eyed, uneducated Titi, her takeaway is that the end of the world is coming and his work could save humankind. She makes a decision to save his life.

Eight months pregnant, she plunges into the icy sea and spends a night standing in water up to her neck; it’s a magic spell that allows the prof to miraculously recover. Unfortunately, while he was in a coma, his divorced wife carelessly instructed Titi to throw the papers containing his scientific discoveries away. Instead she takes them home, where Amir-Sassan uses them to line his rabbit cages. The rest of the film unfolds against Ibrahim’s frustrated attempts to chase down his physics formulas, during which he learns a lot more about Titi’s life, and she is enlightened about his true character.

Though much of this material sounds comic, everything is played as straight drama. Ibrahim’s missing papers turn out to be a MacGuffin that force him, Titi and Amir-Sassan to make tough moral choices and show their true colors. Shakerdoost uses the innocence in her big eyes to construct a magical character (she has telekinetic powers to move a glass across the table, among other tricks) and holds the audience in thrall while she keeps surprising us with her sensitivity to others.

Shakiba’s macho man Amir-Sassan also reveals unexpected sides of an alcoholic, abusive, exploitative man in love. Only Pirouzfar is left out of the party, recycling the dignified, narrow-minded bourgeois hero of Iranian cinema with a touch of mad scientist thrown in.

Panahandeh’s screenplay, which she wrote with her usual co-writer and editor Arsalan Amiri, has most to say when Titi is on screen, like a noisy wedding scene where a Roma band is playing and women are dancing joyfully. The plain shooting style adds little to the story.

Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival
Production company: Evar Film Studio
Cast: Elnaz Shakerdoost, Parsa Pirouzfar, Houtan Shakiba
Director: Ida Panahandeh
Screenwriters, producers: Arsalan Amiri, Ida Panahandeh
Executive producer: Hamid Parvin Khosravi
Director of photography: Farshad Mohammadi
Production, costume designer: Amir Esbati
Editors: Emad Khodabakhsh, Arsalan Amiri
Music: Alireza Afkari
World sales: Dreamlab Films
103 minutes