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FILM REVIEW: ‘Terrestrial Verses’ directed by Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatami

Created by writer-directors Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatami, the film can be quietly devastating, if at times repetitive and humdrum. Still it successfully captures the absurdity, hypocrisy, and inhumanity of having to live under the Iranian regime.

As a result of the country’s authoritarian, repressive government, a number of Iranian directors over the years like Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof have been placed under house arrest and in jail, while others have gone into exile. Still, New York City’s Film Forum was able to screen this recently made and seemingly simple but politically critical film, “Terrestrial Verses.” The film is composed of nine static, single-take vignettes of 10 minutes or less centering on ordinary Iranian citizens facing a range of unseen impersonal bureaucrats in a Tehran that we can hear and see in the first scene dominated by a cacophony of slightly ominous sounding voices and traffic.

Created by writer-directors Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatami, the film can be quietly devastating, if at times repetitive and humdrum. Still it successfully captures the absurdity, hypocrisy, and inhumanity of having to live under the Iranian regime. The film begins with a new father trying with great difficulty to register the name of his new son. He wants to name him David, but the bureaucrat insists it is a foreign name and suggests alternatives that the father doesn’t want. The exchange seems nonsensical, the official senselessly insisting that he is there to help him. The scene exemplifies how chilling the power of the theocratic state over such matters of daily life in Iran is. The vignette that follows focuses on a spirited, head-band-wearing eight-year-old girl dancing and listening to pop music on her earphones. She is in a store with her mother to buy a school uniform. But all her choices—color and style—are undermined by the state requirements on which the saleswoman insists. At the conclusion, she is painfully dressed in a full-length Abaya and veil, which seems to exist to swallow up the eight-year-olds spontaneity.

The film is composed of nine static, single-take vignettes of 10 minutes or less centering on ordinary Iranian citizens facing a range of unseen impersonal bureaucrats in a Tehran that we can hear and see in the first scene dominated by a cacophony of slightly ominous sounding voices and traffic. Photo courtesy of Films Boutique.

After the first episode, each vignette involves a character older than the one before, some who respond boldly. The most overtly courageous is a high school student called into the principal’s office because she was seen with a boy on a motorcycle. Instead of being submissive to the principal’s questioning, she has a card to play that involves her judgmental interrogator’s own rule breaking.

The bureaucrats in each vignette engage in intrusive questioning that provides little space for its country’s citizens having the freedom of a private life. One of the strongest—and, for the film’s creators, obviously the most personal—is faced by a middle-aged filmmaker who is seeking a shooting permit for his film. The censor is maddeningly arbitrary about what must be deleted to make for an acceptable film, which extends far beyond political and social criticism. The director insists that he has written a personal, apolitical script about his family. However, the bureaucrat won’t allow the killing of the father, or the father’s beating the mother, and the act of adultery. With nothing of his script left, the director responds by ripping out all the pages of the offending material. Clearly, the only film that the regime will accept is so anodyne that neither the political nor the deeply personal can be permitted. In “Terrestrial Verses,” living in Iran means inhabiting an absurd, illogical world that is a dangerous one for the ordinary citizen.

“Terrestrial Verses” is not a particularly formally imaginative work, but the last scene and image is powerful and upsetting. An old man sits bent over, as the city outside that is seen in long shot in the first scene darkens, and the buildings begin to collapse—an apocalypse I assume brought on by a government that stifles all expressions of individuality and freedom.

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