'Inversion' ('Varoonegi'): Cannes Review
A woman takes charge in Behnam Behzadi’s smoggy Tehran drama.
The smog that envelopes the teeming metropolis of Tehran, graying out tall buildings and infecting people’s lungs, becomes an ominous sign of the times in veteran director Behnam Behzadi’s penetrating drama Inversion (Varoonegi.) Ostensibly referring to thermal inversion, a meteorological condition causing air pollution, it’s a loaded term that also hints at the turning back of the casually exploited heroine as she rethinks things and starts making decisions on her own. If at first this looks like an object lesson in how Iranian women are taken for granted and used like chattel by any big brother in the vicinity, by the end of the story things have taken an upbeat turn, making for a satisfying and even surprising finale that could find limited release after its bow in Cannes Certain Regard.
This is about Iran’s middle class, and even after the revolution that sanctified men’s power over their wives, mothers and sisters, many women were able to find ways to express themselves. Niloofar (Sahar Dowlatshahi) is one of them. She owns and runs her late father’s tailor shop which she is hoping to expand with new seamstresses. As she will later say, the shop is everything to her.
Her beautiful shining face and warm smile make it seem odd she’s never married, but in her late 30’s we find her still single and living with her widowed, ailing mother. Just when she hooks up with an old flame, a building constructor who has recently returned to Iran (the personable Ali Reza Aghakhani), her mother collapses with respiratory failure. The doctor, somewhat laughably, orders her to move to another city with no pollution. Without even consulting Niloofar, her brother Farhad (a punchy, glum Ali Mosaffa) and her married sister Homa (Roya Javidnia) decide that the most convenient arrangement (for them, of course) is for Niloofar and mom to move together. And since Niloofar will no longer be working, Farhad quickly arranges to sell her shop to pay his debts. One day she finds the door locked with all her sewing machines inside.
The depressing thing about the first act is how the sunny heroine meekly swallows her own desires and allows herself to be railroaded into major life-style changes, which are also likely to skewer her budding romance to Mr. Right. Watching it all happen is her teenage niece Saba, who looks up to aunt Niloofar as a liberated role model and now sees her life being trampled underfoot by her selfish relatives.
The dialogue-packed drama races along to the irritating music of ringing cell phones and messages. In a fine scene between Niloofar and her violent, high-handed brother, she reasonably asks why her opinion doesn’t count and the tide begins to turn. In a nice twist, the mother herself forces the issue. She senses something is fishy when the relatives gathered around her sickbed piously proclaim that “Niloofar’s life and work is you, Mom.”
Typical for Iranian films these days, everyone is very secretive to the point of outright lies, and they beat around the bush when they should be facing up to facts. The constant phone calls that circle the drama like mosquitoes only make matters worse.
The supporting cast lends strong support, particularly Shirin Yazdanbakhsh as the mother and the wide-eyed Setareh Hosseini as young Saba, who sees all the games the adults are playing.
Cast: Sahar Dowlatshahi, Ali Mosaffa, Ali Reza Aghakhani, Setareh Pesyani, Roya Javidnia, Shirin Yazdanbakhsh, Setareh Hosseini, Toufan Mehrdadian, Mojtaba Nam Nabat, Payam Yazdani, Ebad Karimi, Yazdan Akhoondi
Director, screenwriter, producer: Behnam Behzadi
Director of photography: Bahram Badakhshani
Production and costume designer: Babak Karimi Tari
Editor: Meysam Molaei
Music: Sahar Sakhaei
World sales: Noori Pictures
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)