'When the Moon Was Full' ('Shabi Ke Maah Kamel Shod'): Film Review

Courtesy of Iranian Independents
Chilling, operatic storytelling.

A carefree young Iranian bride discovers too late that her husband’s family are Al-Qaeda commandos in Narges Abyar’s dramatic retelling of a true story.

Cross-pollinating political drama, historical events, a love story and a horror movie into one edge-of-seat narrative, Narges Abyar confirms herself as one of Iran’s most exciting new directing talents in When the Moon Was Full. After two films dealing with the human price of the Iran-Iraq war (Track 143 and Breath), she tackles Al-Qaeda head-on in an operatic over-the-topper that, terrifyingly enough, is based on a true story. In a rosy, romantic dream gone wrong, very wrong, the last half-hour is sheer horror. The film swept up best film, best director and three acting awards at Iran’s national film festival in February and will probably win more prizes wherever it plays.

It’s not a perfect film – characters’ viewpoints shift like the sands, undercutting the build-up of suspense, and even the two-hour-plus running time is too short to do justice to the Al-Qaeda scenes. But what is lacking in depth is made up for in the passionate directness of the filmmaking. Another attraction are the charming lead actors, particularly Elnaz Shakerdoost in the role of the laughing young wife who doesn’t wake up to where her new husband is leading her until she is in the middle of a nightmare.

The opening scenes fly by lightly. One day in front of his shop in the market, tousle-headed Abdol-Hamid (Hootan Shakiba) sees a man pestering a pretty girl and throws a punch at him. Soon he’s proposing to the girl himself. Young Faezeh (Shakerdoost) has led a sheltered life with her protective mother and brother, and it takes some maneuvering to get the young couple married, but eventually the whole family is assembled in the backyard for the wedding. Only an uninvited guest causes a ripple of uneasiness amid the food, jokes and laughter. The teasing tone of the first half of the film, with a tip of the hat to Hamid Najafirad's bold editing, is modern and deceptive, lulling the viewer into thinking the story will continue in this ironic voice.

It doesn’t.

The infatuated newlyweds spend a magical honeymoon in the colorful towns of Baluchestan on the Iranian side of the Pakistan border, where they visit some of Abdol-Hamid’s desert-dwelling relatives. Lost in love, it seems their joy will never end. But when they go to live in the home of the groom’s witchy mother Ghamnaz (a notable performance by Fereshteh Sadre Orafaee), Faezeh feels a shiver of premonition. To her surprise, the police arrive with one of Abdol-Hamid’s brothers in handcuffs and uncover a stockpile of arms and money in the yard.

She suspects her new relatives are involved in something illegal. Still the ensuing family quarrels are light and comic. Faezeh wants to move to Europe for the sake of their newborn son. Her husband says sure, but first they need to go to Pakistan to get their visas. His brother is there and will help.

He goes first.

The young mother and her baby end up traveling with her brother. They drive along dirt roads with Bedouins with machine guns. At last they reach the city of Quetta and a sprawling, empty hacienda where Abdol-Hamid – who has grown a beard – installs his family, which includes the presence of his ever-more-dour mother. The whole compound belongs to his brother Abdol-Malek, he tells his wife, but he’s never home.

A fairy tale feeling enwraps this part of the film. Faezeh shuts her eyes to reality to live a childish, carefree, wealthy life, while overhead vultures circle ominously. As the atmosphere darkens, she starts asking herself questions – the same ones the audience has been asking for a while. What does Abdol-Hamid do when he disappears? Is he a soldier? A smuggler? A terrorist?

In the final reels, the veils begin to fall and Faezeh and her son are caught up in pure horror. One day she wakes up to find herself alone in the palatial house. The baby is missing. The door is locked. There are armed guards outside.

Faezeh’s rather irresponsible brother is kidnapped while making a dash for the Iranian embassy, and his fate is the first act of irreparable violence. Audiences may balk at having the gruesome videotape aired on the Saudi TV news channel Al Arabiya and deride the idea that the terrorists phone Faezeh’s clueless mother in Iran to tell her to be sure to watch her son on TV. Yet this is all part of the true story, like the demand by Abdol-Hamid’s fanatical Jihadist brother that he kill his “infidel” wife right after she delivers the twins she’s carrying. His sons are needed as martyrs.

It’s a case of fact being too outrageous and blood-curdling for fiction, and that is the film’s unresolved problem. Abyar’s never-say-die attitude is to plunge even further into the unreality of an Al-Qaeda camp (Quetta is a short drive from Afghanistan) run by the terrifying preacher of death Abdol-Malek. Up to their ears in guns and armored pick-up trucks, his band takes off crazily across the desert in an attempt to outrun government forces, in a scene that would not have looked pale in Mad Max. But the overall impact of the desert scenes, which require we leave Faezeh’s consciousness and enter Abdol-Hamid’s, is scattershot and under-developed.

One also regrets the final shots in which Abyar and co-screenwriter Mortez Esfehani try to have the ending both ways, when there’s obviously only one. In this sense the fine Shakerdoost, a TV star little-seen on screen, creates the right character arc from total innocence to cold certainty that she’s in a trap she can’t escape, because she can’t leave without her children. 

Despite the darkness of the ending, the production is colorful, musical and eye-catching throughout, from the gay markets of Iran to psychedelic shots of gray desert mountains. Dialogue is in Persian and Baluchi.

Cast: Elnaz Shakerdoost, Hootan Shakiba, Fereshteh Sadre Orafaee, Pedram Sharifi, Amin Miri, Banipal Shoomoon, Shabnam Maghdami, Farid Sa jadi Hosseini, Armin Rahimian
Director: Narges Abyar
Screenwriters: Narges Abyar, Morteza Esfehani
Producer: Mohammad-Hossein Ghasemi
Director of photography: Saman Lotfian
Production and costume designer: Mohammad-Reza Shojaie
Editor: Hamid Najafirad
Music: Massoud Sekhavatdoost
Venue: Fajr Film Festival’s Iranian Film Market
World sales: Iranian Independents
137 minutes