I'm Not Angry! (Asabani Nistam!): Berlin Review

"I'm Not Angry!"
Filmmaking this electrifying is rare.

A heart-breaking love story set in Tehran, in the midst of political protests and social distress.

Whatever happened to the young people who took part in Iran’s Green Revolution, the protests following the disputed 2009 presidential election that put Mahmoud Ahmadinejad back in power? I’m Not Angry!, a stunning second film from Iranian writer-director Reza Dormishian (Hatred), looks back in anger at that time while it opens a wide window on today’s Iran. And it does so through top-drawer drama, convincing characters and settings and edgy camerawork, all leading up to a final scene almost too shocking to watch. Though the film is highly censored in Iran, where a version with some 15 minutes of cuts was shown at the recent Fajr Film Festival, it’s a wonder something this clear and outspoken could be made at all. The uncut version premiered in Berlin’s Panorama, from where it should jump into the arms of festival and art house audiences.

The film communicates anguish to the audience through the raw performances of Navid Mohammadzadeh and Baran Kosari as a star-crossed engaged couple who don’t have the money to get married. The heart-breaking story of these two political activists is not just personal, but intimately connected to the social and political disaster of the Ahmadinejad years, which are shown to have bankrupted the country in every sense. Filmmaking this clear is a rarity and shows a talented director able to control image, performance and editing for maximum effect.

The story is told through the nervous eyes of Navid (Mohammadzadeh), a good-looking man employed in the garment industry. It comes as a surprise to learn he’s only 26 ("though I look 260," he says grimly). He’s an Iranian Kurd living in Tehran with two musician friends, both out of work. They’re about to be thrown out of their apartment. And Navid is about to lose the love of his life, Setareh (Kosari), because after four years of being engaged, he cannot support a family in a way that doesn’t offend his conscience.

What draws the viewer to Navid is his anger at the closed doors around him. His fury initially explodes when his boss, who seems little more than a petty crook, humiliates him. Navid beats him up in his office, then spends the rest of the film futilely trying to get paid.

Everything enrages him: the fact he was expelled from the university because of his political activities, and his inability to find a decent job or home or get a bank loan. To control his overwhelming sense of anxiety, more than any concern over his hair-trigger temper, he goes to a doctor and gets a prescription for a mood stabilizer, which he pops in massive doses. “Everybody takes them,” shrugs a friend.

In flashbacks, we watch Navid fall in love with a black-veiled girl in his university class, who stands up and upbraids him for quoting others instead of speaking up with his own ideas. They participate in the protest marches together. That their romance begins on this cerebral note, and with her one-upping him to boot, is very appealing. Many of the references they make to local figures like Ali Shariati, who was an Iranian revolutionary and sociologist, or the overthrown prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh will not mean much to foreign audiences. Yet Dormishian’s very fluid, if somewhat repetitive, screenplay is so fast-moving that this isn’t a big deal. Even the protests that Navid and Setareh take part in, which cost Navid his future, are commemorated in a stark scene of lighting candles on the street between parked cars, in memory of a friend who was killed. It makes a very effective statement about the violence of those times.

Kosari (the daughter of filmmaker Rakhshan Bani-Etemad) has made a name for herself as an actress in films like Under the Skin of the City and Mainline. Here, she radiates gentle intelligence and a teasing, under-wraps sensuality that makes Setareh very special.

But it is relative newcomer Mohammadzadeh (Fat Shaker) who leaves an indelible impression as Navid. He’s a time bomb waiting to explode as the camera follows him striding furiously through airless malls. Swish pans, jump cuts and fast motion delineate him as violent, agitated, confused, perhaps hallucinatory from the pills. He imagines beating a dapper real estate agent (Bahram Afshari) who nags him, and even fantasizes about killing Setareh’s father (Reza Behboudi), a furniture salesman who opposes their wedding. But Navid is still the hero of the film with his gentle, romantic side and the morality to turn down repulsive job offers like dog-snatching. It’s a world where doctors and engineers have turned into unscrupulous businessmen for the sake of money, while the poor advertise their kidneys and livers for sale on public walls. Everything seems dangerous as Ali Azhari’s camera pans and cuts with electrifying recklessness. The ending has the shock value of a great short story: there’s no way to see it coming, and it changes everything before it.

At least some of the film’s wonderful music is onscreen in riffs by Navid’s housemates, Vahid Ghazi Zahedi (who calls himself "Vahid Tarantino" in the film) and Reza Koolaghani, talented modern musicians with unforgettable faces.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama),  Feb. 13, 2014

Cast: Baran Kosari, Navid Mohammadzadeh, Reza Behboudi, Misagh Zare, Bahram Afshari, Milad Rahimi, Vahid Ghazi Zahedi, Reza Koolaghani, Amir Reza Mir Agha, Tinoo Salehi

Director: Reza Dormishian
Screenwriter: Reza Dormishian
Producer: Reza Dormishian
Director of photography: Ali Azhari
Production design and costumes: Baran Kosari
Editor: Hayedeh Safiyari
Sales agent: Iranian Independents
No rating, 110 minutes.