'Paradise' ('Ma dar behesht'): Locarno Review

Courtesy of Locarno International Film Festival
Sensitive, topical debut takes a low-key approach to a complex situation

Sina Ataeian Dena's Tehran-set drama, an Iran-Germany co-production, won two awards at the Swiss festival.

A humdrum but quietly affecting character study chronicling everyday sexism in today's Iran, Paradise (Ma dar behesht) introduces a promising new writer-director from the country in Sina Ataeian Dena. World-premiering in competition at Locarno, this implicitly feminist study of a disaffected 25-year-old schoolteacher was passed over by the official jury but picked up the Ecumenical Prize and was runner-up for the Best First Feature award. Co-produced by Jafar Panahi's brother Yousef — who also enjoys a fleeting cameo — it looks set for a busy festival career as well as art house exposure in Europe and beyond. 

Shot without permission on the hectic streets of Tehran, the Iran-Germany co-production blends documentary and fictional elements by having protagonist Hanieh (newcomer Dorna Dibaj) frequently interacting with individuals who don't know they're being filmed. This technique is mentioned at the start of closing credits, which include dozens of pseudonymous participants, their names redacted presumably for fear of governmental reprisal  a fear that, as the Panahis can testify, is eminently sensible. 

The "candid camera" approach adds a welcome edge of verisimilitude, counterbalancing the lack of pep in Ataeian Dena's functional screenplay and the two-dimensional symbolism he typically deploys. Early on, Hanieh finds herself stuck in a jammed elevator — whose doors, when eventually prised apart, let in rays of sunshine. 

Later, she liberates a bird trapped in a room; she is often to be found staring at fish in a tank; and her working environment, a school on the city's outskirts, is depicted as a kind of jail, with much emphasis on prison-like bars. Such touches aren't exactly subtle — and are of a piece with the title, which, of course, is bitterly ironic given hapless Hanieh's purgatory-like status ("Paradise" currently rivals "Eden," "Home," "Love" and "Chaos" among global cinema's most overused monikers). 

Still a spinster at an age when most of her peers are safely married off, Hanieh continues to deal with the shock of losing both her parents in an accident one year before the narrative begins: "I don't need anything except death," wails her aunt (Roya Afshar). Unhappy at work and unsatisfied in love — she conducts a furtive, clandestine affair with a barely glimpsed quasi-boyfriend — Hanieh is an introverted moper who keeps her emotions to herself. 

Dibaj's low-key performance is thus entirely appropriate, but Hanieh's dogged persistence (her primary goal is a transfer to a more centrally located school) isn't quite enough to provide proceedings with sufficient narrative thrust. And while Hanieh chafes against the restrictions imposed upon her by society (the hijab, an official poster proclaims, offers "protection, not limitation"), Ateaian Dena and his collaborators are by contrast quite content to follow the prevailing international trends in serious-minded cinema. 

The freshest element of the production — first part of a projected trilogy on violence in Tehran — is the on-the-fly, undercover nature of the filming, but in visual and aural terms the results are consistently unremarkable. We're a million miles from, say, the stylized chiaroscuro of Ana Lily Amirpour's baroque study of Iranian femininity, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.

Cinematographer Payam Sadeghi's palette is dominated by dowdy shades, ranging from tobacco-stain yellow to dunnish browns. His images do, however, afford glimpses of the mountains on Tehran's horizon, further emphasizing the prevailing mood of stultifying entrapment and confinement.

Ateaian Dena's most effective sequences involve the school and its all-female pupils, with the daily assembly hectorings from the microphone-wielding vice principal (Fateme Naghavi) particularly well-written and vividly delivered. The young female students are a likably boisterous bunch, risking official wrath by adopting hairstyles inspired by Japanese anime heroine Judy Abbott and joining together for a pop-song sing-along on the school bus. 

Such joys carry a sad undertone, as it's clear just what happens to such free spirits as they progress toward adulthood — personified here by the woes of the downtrodden Hanieh. Ataeian Dena's underlying message relates to education and the wider issue of underused resources, in a country which makes much of its traditions regarding learning and science — the latter explicitly linked to controversial nuclear-weapons development — but where women's access to higher education is a perpetually fraught subject.

Whatever the travails imposed upon Iran's distaff population, they can and do find solace in the female solidarity evident in Hanieh's relationship with her married, pregnant sister Leila (Fariba Kamran). Paradise may thus be painfully postponed rather than irretrievably lost, proposes a picture that eventually offers some grounds for tentative optimism.

Production companies: Bon Voyage Films, Sina Dena Films
Cast: Dorna Dibaj, Fateme Naghavi, Fariba Kamran, Nahid Moslemi, Roya Afshar, Hessam Noorani
Director-screenwriter: Sina Ataeian Dena
Producers: Sina Ataeian Dena, Yousef Panahi, Amir Hamz
Cinematographer: Payam Sadeghi
Production designer: Amin Dehfooli
Costume designer: Mohammed Rafeei
Editors: Sina Ataeian Dena, Mohammad Tavakoli
Casting: Hossein Roshani
Sales: Bon Voyage Films, Berlin
No Rating, 98 minutes