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The Persian Version

Persian-American filmmaker based in New York creates a semi-autobiographical dramedy about her family's complex national identity, with a few dirty secrets thrown in - in cinemas on Friday, March 22nd

The relationship between the US and Iran has been extremely fraught and hostile since the Iranian Revolution in the year of 1978. Leila’s (Layla Mohammadi) family migrated to the US years earlier, at a time when the Middle Eastern nation was ruled by the Shah, and the two countries enjoyed a far more amicable, rosy even, bond. One version of the story states that her family moved to the US because there was a shortage of doctors, caused by the Vietnam War. But there is a darker version of events that Leila is keen to uncover little by little, which requires her to take a bumpy journey into the past.

Her quiet, clinician father Ali (Bijan Daneshmand), her stern, strong-willed mother Mamanjoon (Bella Warda), her garrulous grandmother Shireen (Niousha Noor), and her many brothers are comfortably settled on American soil, despite the overt discrimination aimed at Iranians (particularly in the years after the Revolution). Leila has eight siblings in total, presumably born on both sides of the Atlantic. Leila is a Lesbian filmmaker who has a brief sexual encounter with a drag queen (whose real name is Tom, played by Maximillian Balthazar). He unexpectedly impregnates her. Meanwhile, Shireen’s father is sent to hospital, and placed on the waiting list for a heart transplant. Neither of the prospects is a cheerful one. Shireen would rather have cancer than give birth to a child, however she progressively warms up to the idea of motherhood.

The relationship between Shireen and her mother is the central pillar of this 107-minute movie. The two women have a lot more in common than it may seem at first. The movie zigzags back and forth in time in order to tie together the predicament of a 13-year-old adolescent forced into marriage with a man nine years her senior in Iran (much younger actors play mum and dad in theses scenes) with the tribulations of a 21-century Lesbian suddenly faced with the prospect of parenthood with a person of the opposite sex. There’s even a chance that she may embark on a real relationship with Tom, who happens to be gay. He suggests that “now that they have sex out of the way”, they should finally go on a date. Such bizarre proposition is made while Shireen has an ultrasound done, in one of the movie funniest scenes. Other moments of comedy relief include jokes about anal sex before marriage (grandma repeatedly advises Shireen to use the “back entrance” before she ties the knot, becoming very disappointed at her failure to do so). Cultural differences are highlighted when Tom asks Shireen to teach him how to say goodbye in Farsi, and she embarrasses him by teaching how to say “shut up” instead. Her siblings retort the rude language with an awkward smile.

The Persian Version boasts a fascinating real-life story with enough twists and turns to make even the most skilled of drivers dizzy. Paedophilia, suicide and miscarriage are amongst the topic addressed. The increasing complicity between Shireen and Mamanjoon continue to drive the narrative until the end. The outcome is very moving, and brings satisfactory closure to the story.

Those expecting an American film with an Iranian sensibility are in for a huge disappointment. Farsi is indeed spoke, Googoosh sings, and several scenes are set in pre-Revolution Iran. These are not filmed inside the Islamic nation, which not only has a tense relationship with the US but also imposes strict censorship on filmmakers (anything deemed “feminist” is punished with a lengthy custodial sentence). The Persian Version lacks Iranian sensibility. I presume the director is either not familiar or not interested in the more profound, meditative and formally subversive style of Iranian directors such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Abbas Kiarostami, Panar Panahi, Asghar Fahradi or women filmmaler such as Samira Makhmalbaf, Hana Makhmalbaf, or even the more collourful Marjani Sartrapi. Maryam Keshavarz’s film is a very American affair, with a dash of Bollywood thrown in for a little sparkle (there are two boisterous and energetic dance acts). No trace of the devices associated with Iranian film.

The biggest problem with the Persian Version is that it is too fast paced. I believe no single shot exceeds 15 seconds (in fact, most barely exceed three). This frenetic editing, combined with gratuitous cinematic devices (such as animation, and two soliloquies delivered through a series of tableaux vivants) becomes unnerving. At one point, Shireen says that she inherited the “strength of silence” from her mother, but ironically this is precisely what the movie lacks. There are no quiet moments that allow viewers to reflect. People talk incessantly, either diegetically, or in the shape of Shireen’s voice-over. These repetitive antics partly sacrifices the dramatic impact of the movie. The more serious issues are utilised are mere plot trigger devices. Politics and social taboos are entirely subordinate to the editing tricks. A case of style above substance.

The Persian Version opened the 40th edition of the Munich Film Fest, when this piece was originally written. The film premiered earlier this year at Sundance, where it won the Audience Award for US Dramatic Competition. It received an enthusiastic ovation on both sides of the Atlantic. In cinemas on Friday, March 22nd.

By Victor Fraga - 24-06-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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