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Terrestrial Verses

Faceless oppressors mortify ordinary Iranians of both sexes and all walks of life - cunning tribute to individual and artistic freedom shows at the 53rd International Fillm Festival Rotterdam


Iranian men and women are routinely subjected to extortion, corruption, sexism and humiliation. The tactics are often subtle. Terrestrial Verses does not showcase any physical violence. Instead, the tormentors use words in order to manipulate their victims. They are often polite, instrumentalising a deceitful sense of cordiality. We never see their face or any part of their anatomy, except the quick glimpse of a hand in one of the eight to 10 vignettes that compose this unusually structured social drama. Their disembodied voice is loud and clear. The hapless citizens sit in front of the camera and answer the intrusive, absurd and intimidating questions in talking heads style. The camera is entirely static and there are no cuts inside each one of the segment, which are separated by a simple black screen displaying the first name of the character: Farbod, Aram, David, Siamal, Selena, etc. Such lack of motion conveys a sense of imprisonment.

Sadaf (Sadaf Asgari) is accused of driving without a hijab. The agent confronts her with the image of a long-haired person inside her vehicle, prompting the woman to remove her headscarf and reveal her short hair. The penalty officer remains unconvinced and unimpressed, questioning Sadaf’s alleged loose morals and lifestyle choices. The school principal interrogates teenage girl Aram.(Sarvin Zabetian) after the cleaner alleges seeing her arrive at school on a motorbike with a man. She insists that the accusations are false, and that her snitch is unreliable because he’s virtually blind. In both cases, the interviewer is a woman. This is a sordid reminder that a female in a position of power can wholeheartedly embrace sexism, and comfortably assume the position of the sadistic male.

Sometimes the torturer wishes to undress his subject. A lewd boss interviews the young and pretty Faezeh (Faezeh Rad). He insists that she removes her hijab, and resorts to some extreme intimidation tactics once the visibly embarrassed job applicant threatens to leave. Women are never in control of their body: they decide neither when to wear nor when to remove the controversial headgear. In another episode, Farbod (Hossein Soleimani) wishes to renew his driving license, but the officer in charge forces him to take his clothes off, revealing a very peculiar t-shirt and some extensive tattoos (in Islam, permanent ink is haram). It is never clear whether the male in charge of the situation is aroused by the nudity or simply seeking to mortify the disreputable rascal, in the movie’s most hilarious part. Either way, there’s little doubt that the derives pleasure from the situation.

Other vignettes are a lot more light-hearted, yet no less funny and affecting. A father (Bahram Ark) insists that his newborn son should be called David, despite the notary insisting that foreign names are prohibited, and that he should go for a religious option instead. Six- to eight-year-old Selena (Arghavan Sabani) has to try an headscarf and also a full-length robe covering her entire body for an upcoming ceremony. She looks unimpressed and instead dances to the music on her pink headphones (she’s probably too young to understand that dancing in public is illegal in Iran). Elderly Mehri (Gouhar Kheri Andish) begs the local police officer that they return her missing chihuahua. That too is frowned upon since some islamic schools see our canine companions as impure. There’s even a touch of metalanguage. A censor forces filmmaker Ali (Farzin Mohades) to butcher his film script, arguing that famous, award-winning directors had to abide by the same obtuse rules. The incredulous man furiously rips the pages of his cherished creation. Note that the character shares his name with the two real-life filmmakers behind Terrestrial verses

These powerful people are robbed of their individuality and human rights. They must surrender control of their bodies, their privacy and their dignity to authoritarian pervs. They are not allowed to make simple decisions for themselves. The patriarchy repeatedly crushes and silences these poor terrestrials. There is no sense of compassion and solidarity, except when those are feigned as part of the highly questionable elicitation techniques.

The movie is named after a poem by feminist poet and filmmaker Forugh Farrokhzad. Possibly the country’s most celebrated artist in history, Forugh died at the tender age of just 32 in a car accident, a decade before the Revolution. Her voice remains so powerful that not even the country’s fundamentalist regime managed to silence it. It is remarkable that such politically-charged movie managed to dribble the country’s strict censorship. Terrestrial Verses subverts language and format, while also challenging religion, tyranny, chauvinism and injustice. Fortunately for us, Iranian censors failed to realise that this taut, 76-minute drama is in reality a heartwarming tribute to individual and artistic freedoms.

Terrestrial Verses shows at the 53rd International Film Festival Rotterdam. It premiered at the Un Certain Regard section of the Festival de Cannes.

By Victor Fraga - 28-01-2024

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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