With lyrical simplicity, "Niloofar" depicts the expansive beauty and soul-crushing restraint of rural traditions. The title character is a 13-year-old Iraqi girl who is precocious, strong-willed and intellectually curious. But her midwife mother sees no need for an education. Of more dire concern, her father has arranged her marriage to a wealthy landowner. The Persian-language drama, a French-Iranian-Lebanese co-production screening in AFI Fest's Narrative Competition, is a natural for festivals and art houses that welcome independent international cinema.
Some of the performances at first feel a bit broad, but as the story proceeds and its tensions mount, a compelling momentum takes hold. From the opening sequence, in which Niloofar's mother applies henna to a bride's hands, writer-director Sabine El Gemayel evinces a poetic eye for the colors and textures of domestic life. A birth scene in a stream is powerful, marking the awakening of Niloofar (Mobina Ayenedar) to the perils of womanhood. Her mother (Roya Nownahali) expects Niloofar to become her apprentice and believes that "all you need in life are your hands and intuition." But the girl is bold enough to dream of being a doctor.
She has a child's laugh and a quick mind, and she jumps at the chance to take school lessons from a more worldly neighbor. To forestall her puberty, which will lead to her wedding to Sheikh Abbas (Amir Aghai), Niloofar tries teas and tourniquets. A fortunetelling aunt (Nayereh Farahani) cryptically urges her to embrace her destiny. Her young goatherd uncle (Shahab Hosseini), nursing his own heartbreak, watches her protectively.
In such subtle details as a woman shifting her baby out of its father's embrace, the film suggests the corrosive effects of custom. It shows how men, too, can be trapped by conventional notions of honor. With references to U.S. bombs and ancient deities, "Niloofar" is direct and elliptical, contemporary and timeless.
A 3B Prods./Khaneh production
Cast: Roya Nownahali, Shahab Hosseini, Hengameh Ghaziani, Mobina Ayenedar, Amir Aghai, Sadegh Safai, Fatemeh Motamed Aria, Nayereh Farahani.
Director: Sabine El Gemayel.
Screenwriter: Sabine El Gemayel, with the participation of Fereshteh Taerpour.
Producers: Jean Brehat, Rachid Bouchareb, Fereshteh Taerpour.
Director of photography: Bahram Badakhshani.
Production designer: Majid Lailaji.
Music: Fardin Khalatbari.
Costume designers: Samira Sinai, Sara Khaledi, Jila Mehrjoui.
Editor: Bahram Dehghani.
No MPAA rating, 82 minutes