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Quirky Iranian dramedy interrogates the nation's peculiar traditions and taboos - from the Official Competition of the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival

A male body lies on the beach, his face down. The man looks unconscious however he’s still breathing. Dogs surround him. The waves crash gently. Much later on – once the story comes full circle -, we find out that water is a powerful medication. It provides both cleansing and soothing.

We then meet 23-year-old Fred. He still lives with his mother (Maedeh Tahmasebi). One day, shes phone the police and demands that they arrest him. His alleged crime: not working, oversleeping and generally getting on his mother’s nerves. He may have stolen some of her jewelry, even if there is no evidence of the alleged wrongdoing. The police officers laugh it off and instead ask Fred that he looks after the seemingly deranged old lady. Maybe she’s overdoing her meds? This odd interaction sets the tone for the 120-minute movie about to follow: a subtle social drama about despondent young people, and with gentle comedic flavours.

Fred accidentally meets a desperate Roxana (Mahsa Akbaradi). They just smashed her car window and stole her purse from inside, with a much valued hard drive containing images of a wedding. Roxana is a videographer, and the disappearance of these files could land her in both financial and legal problems. She refuses to report the matter to the police, for reasons Fred cannot understand. So he sets out to help her. The two develop a profound bond. The male is clearly smitten with the nervous, beautiful young woman. He wants to impress her at lunch, despite having no money to pay the bill. And he makes a big sacrifice, a sheer gesture of chivalry. One that only a lover would do, and which puts him at odds with the justice system. Their tumultuous relation in hampered by funny and peculiar developments, including a bizarre interaction with the police. This is as close as you will get to a romcom in Iranian cinema. The country’s strict forbids prevents male and female characters from touching each other (let alone kissing, or any vague suggestion of sex).

The barriers that young people have to overcome in order to stay safe from harm provide the biggest moments of comic relief. The police are mostly clueless young men. An officer handcuffs Fred, and yet the two strangely bond in their complicity. Neither one wants to be in their position. They want to love, they want to dance, they want to be merry, but display of public affection and public dancing are both illegal in Iran. Fred could end up in prison, given lashes or maybe he could get away with his “crime” by sobbing uncontrollably in front of the judge.

Our female protagonist has to fend for herself while Fred attempts to overcome his own problems. She grapples with a greedy landlord, while also seeking to contact those who stole her purse after seeing one of her items advertised online for sale. This awkward encounter of Roxana and he thief is peppered with a gentle sense of humour and a humanistic touch. Nobody is not entirely “evil”, she eventually finds out. Roxana is never formulaic and predictable. Most of the twists fulfil a narrative purposes, while also providing non-Iranians with fascinating insight into the values and the mind of an exuberant people living under the constant surveillance and harsh judgment of religious fundamentalism. The script does have a few loose ends, but they do not compromise the integrity of the story. The final sequence is very sad and intelligent.

The director’s son Pouya Shahbazi signs the auspicious cinematography, with conventional shooting and framing. This is not an audacious art house drama. Instead, Roxana is a genuine and loving family film designed to make you laugh and cry.

Roxana is in the Official Competition of the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival. It premiered earlier this year at the Tokyo International Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 09-12-2023

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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