starring Sadaf Asgari, Behnaz Jafari, Babak Karimi, Fereshteh Sadr Orafaee
written and directed by Massoud Bakhshi
by Walter Chaw About 20 minutes into Massoud Bakhshi's shrill Yalda, A Night for Forgiveness (hereafter Yalda), I put my hands over my ears to blunt the constant keening. It's also the point where I started wondering what this film was on about. There's something brilliant and fascinating at the core of Yalda--a movie about an Iranian variety/game show in which the fate of someone sentenced to death hangs on the forgiveness of one of the people they've wronged--that makes its hamfistedness a real pity. Gathered are what we might call the plaintiff and the defendant to sit in an "Ellen"-style talk-show nook to tell their stories and air their grievances and then let the audience deliver a verdict via text message, whether or not a blood-money bounty will be paid to the aggrieved should they decide to exercise some grace. That's horrible. It's not more horrible than the U.S. justice system, which offers no such opportunity of recourse for the accused (heaven forbid a Christian nation ever exercise forgiveness and actually value life), but it's horrible just the same.
Iran makes great movies. Yalda isn't one of them. There's so much potential here for a conversation about patrilineal cultures, patriarchies, reproductive rights, fundamentalist theocracies, pop-culture exploitation, class struggles, the toll of debt, spiritual grace and forgiveness, criminal justice... Pick one and dig deep. But Yalda just does the same kind of exploitation geek show it's satirizing. So it's not an indictment of this shit at all--or any shit, ultimately. Rather, it's something like a feel-good movie about a terrible person being bullied into doing the right thing for another terrible person. The first clue is all the screeching. The men in the film include a quiet, authoritative producer, the calm and handsome host of the program, and a reasonable and cool criminal prosecutor, all of whom are engaged in trying to get the women to tone down their yelling. Even the "cool" Mona drives off in a huff at one point, gets into a poignant accident, and then acts irrationally, even as we roll our eyes into our head and mutter "of course this is what they do" for the third or fourth surprise reversal.
Meanwhile, in the background and corners lies the real interest of the film. I was particularly taken by a harried page played by Forough Ghajabagli, who's given the unenviable job of trying to keep the other women on task. The role is mostly thankless, but I wondered more than once what sort of movie Yalda would have been had it Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead-ed itself around her. Seeing this decent human being trying to do her job while believing in the concept of grace that her show could provide the desperate and deserving, even as she witnesses venality on every side--man, that could've been amazing. As it is, Yalda, which overstays its welcome even at a brisk 80 minutes (the last five minutes feel like 80 by themselves), doesn't know what it wants to say, and so it says the worst possible thing it could say. What a shame. Programme: World Cinema Dramatic Competition