'Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
A clever, suspenseful exposé of Sharia law.

A young woman convicted of murder goes on Iranian TV to try to win a pardon in Massoud Bakhshi’s melodrama, which won the Grand Jury Prize in Sundance's World Cinema Dramatic category.

The way religious law penetrates every aspect of Iranian life, from a murder case to how a TV show is run, is probably the most striking aspect of Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness. The perverse logic of temporary marriage, inheritance laws favoring boys and homicide laws stacked against wives, not to mention the practice of paying one’s way out of a hanging with “blood money” to the victim’s relatives, become casual plot elements in this well-shot, cleverly scripted melodrama. Filmmaker Massoud Bakhshi (A Respectable Family), who wrote and directed, took home the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival.

At the same time, one can imagine another audience taking at face value the harrowing story of Maryam (Sadaf Asgari), who has been sentenced to death for murdering her husband despite an avalanche of mitigating circumstances. But the fact the story is set on a live television show called Joy of Forgiveness, where condemned criminals on death row beg for mercy from their victims' relatives, adds a surreal element that pretty much precludes any emotional response by the audience to poor Maryam’s plight.

The film begins with a breathtaking night view of the soaring Milad Tower in Tehran, whose cornerstone was laid by the Shah but whose construction began after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Arriving at the TV station in handcuffs, young Maryam looks dazed and dull while her mother is foolishly excited. The showrunner, a competent older man (Babak Karimi), assures her they are going to save her life on the program, which is taking place during the night of Yalda, the winter solstice, a cheerful holiday in Iran. So the expectation is that Maryam is going to persuade her dead husband’s daughter Mona (Behnaz Jafari), the heiress to his ad agency, to grant her forgiveness.

It is soon apparent that Maryam’s nervousness and lack of self-control could threaten this happy ending. She has already served 15 months in prison and seems emotionally shattered, while her silly mom bothers everyone on the set and jeopardizes her pardon.

As the story of the “murder” comes out, one outrageous fact follows another. To begin with, the wealthy husband Nasser Zia was 65 and married when he decided to importune innocent young Maryam, his driver’s daughter. Convincing her he loved her, he got her to agree to the infamous practice of "temporary marriage," which avoids sin along with permanent commitment. But Maryam disregarded Nasser’s condition for marriage that there be no children, and when she got pregnant they began fighting. According to a documentary reconstruction of the crime, Maryam gave Nasser a push that made him fall down a one-step rise in the living room, hit his head and die. For this, a court sentenced her to death by hanging.

The prosecutor, who is also on the show, would be happy to commute this sentence to three to six years in prison, and if she wins the sympathy of enough viewers who vote in her favor, the blood money will be paid by the show’s sponsors. Cue the commercial break.

Only halfway through does Mona Zia turn up at the station, late, dressed head to foot in glamorous black like an Iranian Maleficent. Behnaz, who played the striking actress in Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces, gives the character a brooding villainy that is confirmed when it turns out she is planning to use the blood money to go abroad. But her expected forgiveness is put into question by a last-minute plot twist that only a melodrama could absorb without cracking.

There is really much to enjoy in this paradoxical but grippingly paced film. Young Asgari is beautifully cast in the main role, which demands many scenes played in tears and hysterics. Karimi leads the TV crew in taking the whole absurd situation seriously.

Julian Atanassov, the cinematographer, opts for elegant opulence in muted colors as the camera nervously follows characters around the studio and backstage offices. Jacques Comets’ editing is precise and always fluid. Music is limited to a refined selection of traditional Persian excerpts.

Production companies: JBA, Amour Fou Luxembourg, Niko Film, Close Up Films, Schortcut Films, Tita B Productions, Ali Moussafa Productions
Cast: Sadaf Asgari, Behnaz Jafari, Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy, Babak Karimi, Faghiheh Soltani, Arman Darvish, Fourgh Ghajabagli, Fereshteh Hosseini.
Director-screenwriter: Massoud Bakhshi
Producers: Jacques Bidou, Marianne Dumoulin
Co-producers: Joelle Bertossa, Alexander Dumreicher-Ivanceanu, Nicole Gerhards, Bady Minck, Ali Mosaffa, Fred Premel, Georges Schoucair, Flavia Zanon
Director of photography: Julian Atanassov
Production designer: Leila Naghdi Pari
Costume designer: Rana Amini
Editor: Jacques Comets
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema)
World sales: Pyramide International


89 minutes