'Son-Mother' ('Pesar-Madar'): Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
A heart-breaker that slips into melodrama.

A working widow in Iran faces an impossible choice trying to keep her family together in Mahnaz Mohammadi’s dramatic first feature.

Told first from the mother’s, then the son’s p.o.v., Son-Mother (Pesar-Madar) is one of the saddest stories to come out of recent Iranian cinema, and that’s saying a lot. It seems there is no end to the evil combinations created by the country’s archaic rules and laws and gossiping, venal citizens with an inborn prejudice against independent women. Here there is the additional trauma of factories laying off workers as sanctions tighten and the economic situation deteriorates. When a young working widow loses her job, she is forced to choose between her darling son and her sick daughter in a story that feels at once over-the-top and emblematic of great social distress.

The screenplay by writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof, known for uncompromising films like Manuscripts Don’t Burn and A Man of Integrity, confers a pedigree on this first feature directed by Mahnaz Mohammadi, who is a documentary filmmaker, actor and women’s rights activist. Writer and helmer lay the Dickensian trials and tribulations of the heroine on thick, more than is really believable at times. The film becomes more engrossing in its second half, when it switches to the little boy’s perspective, gaining force and unity under Mohammadi’s confident direction.

A worried-looking young woman, Leila Abdolahi (Raha Khodayari), toils in front of steaming vats of liquid in a troubled factory. As she well knows, she’s in line to be laid off because she is consistently late for work, and only the fact that she’s a single head of household (and, one suspects, an object of admiration for the head of personnel) keeps her off the firing list.

Her lateness is due to her aversion to riding on a bus driven by the mooning and not very attractive widower Mr. Kazem (Reza Behboodi). He has made her an offer of marriage, strongly seconded by her aged neighbor Bibi (Maryam Boubani), that promises to solve her financial woes. But he has one condition she can’t accept. He has a daughter the same age as her 10-year-old Amir (Mahan Nasiri) and custom and propriety forbid them to live under the same roof. For the marriage to happen, the son has to go.

Although the grungy bus driver proves his worth when her infant daughter falls sick and needs to be rushed to the hospital, and Bibi continues to press his case, there’s something wrong with the setup. Is there really no better solution to Leila’s problems than a loveless marriage of convenience without her son?

Khodayari is dignity personified as the distraught Leila and is very correct in her behavior with Mr. Kazem, keeping her distance as much as possible. He, on the other hand, makes no secret about his pursuit of the lovely widow. Seeing this, her co-workers spread nasty rumors about her “services” to the bus driver and brand her a scab for not joining in the factory-wide protests about the firings. Probably in revenge, they write a collective letter claiming she’s not a single head of household but Kazem’s wife, and she is suspended while a leisurely investigation is launched.

In the second half of the film, Amir is temporarily residing in a deaf-mute school where old Bibi works. There is no sign of his mother and the implication about what has happened to the family is not good.

Is it coincidence that young actor Mahan Nasiri recalls Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows? Amir’s head is shaved and his big, sorrowful eyes are disturbing, even to the dismissive school principal who is probably on the take along with Bibi. Left adrift in a world of emotional boys who can’t speak or hear, Amir plays his role of being one of them without enthusiasm, a prisoner without a crime. More than a rebel, Nasiri portrays him as an intelligent introvert looking for a way out. He discovers some of the boys are also pretending and can talk. When he tells one of them his mom is coming to pick him up in a month, the boy says, “My mom has been coming for three years.” It’s a dark moment that seems to seal Amir’s fate, until he makes up his mind to escape.

Mohammadi is a nuanced director whose passion for social issues recalls that of Rakshan Bani-Etemad. She brings a top-notch technical team to the film, led by cinematographer Ashkan Ashkani, who approaches common situations like lighting the gloomy institute or a dream sequence with creative atmosphere.

Production companies: Europa Media Nest, Filminiran
Cast: Raha Khodayari, Mahan Nasiri, Reza Behboodi, Shiva Ordooie, Maryam Boubani

Director: Mahnaz Mohammadi
Screenwriter: Mohammad Rasoulof
Producers: Farzad Pak, Kaveh Farnam, Mohammad Rasoulof
Director of photography: Ashkan Ashkani
Production designer: Siamak Karinezhad
Editor: Mohammad Reza Muini
Music: Amir Molookpour
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
World sales: Beta

102 minutes