Film Movement
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Massoud Bakhshi
Writer: Massoud Bakhshi
Cast: Sadaf Asgari, Behnaz Jafari, Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy, Babak Karimi, Faghiheh Soltani, Arman Darvish
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/6/20
Opens: December 11, 2020

Yalda, a Night for Forgivness Poster

If you think that the United States has gone through bizarre times during the last four years—which it has—wait till you see what’s going on in Iran. I don’t mean the general way that religious fanatics have taken over, determined to lash out at = the U.S. The Great Satan, pointing their fingers at us for our promiscuity, our consumerism, our spending more money on the military than the next ten nations, and breaking solid treaties not only with the Islamic Republic but as well with scientific bodies. Consider their system of allowing the families of murder victims to forgive the perpetrators of crime thereby saving them from a hanging, which to their culture involves both following the religious precept “an eye for an eye,” and allowing the felon to give “blood money” to the families of the deceased instead of paying for the crimes with their lives.

This concept of forgiveness is on trial in “Yalda, A Night for Foregiveness,” which (and this is really what’s bizarre) bringing the immediate family of the victim face to face with the felon on a TV reality show, by which the audience of millions at home, at the conclusion of the give and take between victimized and felon, can text their idea of a just verdict to the show’s producer and decide whether to allow the TV station itself to pay the blood money to the family. The ultimate decision, though, is in the hands of the victim’s immediate relative, though there appears to be a conflict of interest. The relative can refuse to forgive and send the offender to the gallows, then windiung up with nothing but satisfaction. Instead, the family can forgive and add quite of number of rials to their account at the Bank of Iran.

As written and directed by Massoud Bakhshi—whose “A Respectable Family” deals with a professor who returns to Iran after two decades abroad—Maryam (Sadaf Asgari) has been convicted of killing her husband, a man several decades older, the alleged motive being that she is after his money. But then, here’s even more bizarro. Iran may not be as bound to puritanical religious ideology as you may think. For reasons that include the fact that many young Iranians have put off marriage for financial and other reasons but still have sexual needs, the country’s law allow for temporary marriages. This might be considered to us a form of legalized prostitution, but it’s a way that the Muslim state puts the cloak of legitimacy on a union—something like what we in the U.S. consider a partnership but with the right of inheritance.

Did she kill her husband for his money, as his daughter Mona (Behnaz Jafari) believes, or was it an accident as Maryam insists? The two are brought face to face in a reality show moderated by Omid (Arman Darvish), after an opening of the story with a stunning view of the Milad Tower in Tehran. The producer is Ayat (Babak Karimi), and, coaching her daughter, her mother (Feresteh Sadre Orafaly) advises her to show humility, to apologize, virtually to kiss Mona’s butt. The daughter, who is about 17 years of age and not yet imbued with the need to compromise, holds that the killing was an accident, so why apologize? Nonetheless, at the appropriate time, she begs Mona to spare her life while Mona, despite being a woman with class and education, is conflicted between wanting the blood money and wanting revenge in the name of her dad.

Everyone but Mona hopes for forgiveness. Even the prosecutor urges Mona to relent, to commute the sentence to no more than six years, provided that enough viewers sympathize with the teen and vote thumbs up through their cell phones.

Though at times you could swear that the whole business is a parody of our own reality shows, junk productions like “The Assistant,” you could forgiven if you are drawn into the emotions of the program, wanting to talk to the screen and tell Mona to spare a life, take the money and run. A further complication centers on Maryam’s mother’s manipulation involving a baby, adding to the melodrama that were it not developed with honesty and authenticity could have landed “Yalda” into soapy territory.

The title of the movie involves a night of celebration (something like our own glorious November 7th, 2020), during the winter solstice when families and friends get together to drink and to eat pomegranates and nuts, a holdover from the ancient Zoroastrian religion. This film won the Sundance Festival Grand Jury prize, doubtless considering the performances of the two female leads—Sadaf Asgari, tight-lipped, confused, virtually shuddering with fear of imminent death, and Behnaz Jafari as a woman of a higher class who had gotten Maryam a job with her father and now regrets ever laying her eyes on her. Up to the final minutes, you will be convinced that she will pardon the offender, but no, maybe she would not, given her contempt for the person of a lowly class who allegedly seduced Mona’s dad but is told that the opposite is true: that the victim, already married, begged the young woman to agree to a temporary marriage provided that no pregnancy take place.

In Farsi with English subtitles.

89 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+


LOVE CHILD – movie review

Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Eva Mulvad
Writer: Eva Mulvad
Cast: Sahand, Mani, Leila
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/14/20
Opens: September 14, 2020

love child

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, his people asked him how it went. The good news is “I got him down to ten,” the lawgiver said. “The bad news is that adultery is still one of them.” Commandments notwithstanding, adultery is probably more common than killing, stealing, even dissing your mother and father. I’ll bet more people say OMG than drink Coca-Cola, so forget enforcing decrees against taking The Name in vain. While we in the West love soap operas with every kind of description of sex outside marriage, parts of the world are just no fun. In Iran, if you’re guilty of violating the Sixth Commandment, you are in deep doody.

The government of Iran says not only Death to America but when they get a chance they think Stone the Adulterers. In this doc, a dramatized one which makes it the kind of nonfiction story that evokes the same audience interest as a narrative drama, Sahand and Leila have a love child conceived four years earlier in Tehran. Mani, the title character, does not understand why her mother and dad are eager to leave everything behind in Iran, but in a way it’s because of him. He is the physical evidence that he was created by his mom, but not by the guy back home who somehow, after three years of marriage to Leila, left her, well, a virgin. The Iranian court would not grant Leila a divorce which even our Catholic church would make short shrift of with an annulment. Instead the judge said “Pray and watch TV.” Maybe they don’t have good stuff on TV like our Drew Barrymore show, and yet somehow, not explained, she does get the divorce.

They’re not looking for a place to exploit workers and make a fortune like people in some countries. They want only to live. They are an educated couple, speaking Farsi, Turkish, English, even Azeri which should make them welcome in many countries, but first they fly to Istanbul and begin a paper chase. They seek refugee status from the UN High Commission for Refugees, which sends their fate into the hands of a byzantine bureaucracy; not ironic considering that they’re filing from Byzantium. They check the UNHCR website eager to hear whether their plea for refugee status is granted, which would allow them to apply for passage to Canada or Australia among other places, but Mani decides for them. He wants America. He never heard of Trump. But Turkey is inundated with Syrian refugees—give the Turks credit for opening their borders to (shock) Muslims (!) and appearing ready to allow them to stay for years if they wish.

As stated above, this is a doc that’s in the welcome format of a narrative drama, one that even takes on the momentum of a thriller. The three stars are not professional actors, but you’d never know. Their lovey-dovey chats and arguments are likely to have been scripted by Danish writer-director Eva Mulvad, whose doc “A Modern Man” is about a Norwegian-English elite violinist, but they sure seem real. Makes you wonder why people go to acting school when all you need is a good director like Ms. Mulvad.

A compelling drama with subtitles in Farsi, Turkish, English and Azeri.

82 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – A-


THE OPERATIVE – movie review

Vertical Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Yuval Adler
Screenwriter: Yuval Adler, adapted from the Novel “The English Teacher” by Yiftach Reicher Atir
Cast: Diane Kruger, Martin Freeman, Cas Anvar, Liron Levo, Yaakov Zada Daniel, Ohad Knoller
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/26/19
Opens: August 2, 2019

Image result for the operative movie poster

You would expect Yuval Adler, a director whose freshman feature, “Bethlehem,” bounce back and force in the plotting, getting diverging points of view from people involved in the spy business. “Bethlehem,” about the complex relationship between an Israeli Secret Service officer and his Palestinian informant, finds the director coloring his new movie with the same complexity of his first. “The Operative,” based on Yiftach Reicher Atir’s book “The English Teacher” (available from Amazon for under ten bucks), excels with yet another gem of a performance from Diane Kruger, a German actress who is not only fluent in English but speaks it with an American accent. Kruger, who studied with the Royal Ballet of London until an injury ended that career, may have endured a blessing in disguise as she is easily among A-list actors sought for diverse roles whether a revenge thriller like “In The Fade” about a woman played by Diane Kruger who seeks revenge when a car bombing kills her husband and son, or “All That Divides Us,” examining the relationship of slum dwellers and a bourgeois family, with Diane Kruger playing the daughter of Catherine Deneuve who needs saving from a relationship.

I occasionally wonder whether some of these movies that switch back and forth would be better served by a chronological pattern but we take what we’re given. Here Thomas (Martin Freeman), a “handler” operating with the Israeli Mossad in Germany, works this time with Rachel (Diane Kruger), whose principal mission is in Tehran. Rachel is a loner, admittedly often lonely as well, a woman involving herself in a romantic relationship that could damage a major operation: that of setting up an electronics company to convey equipment to Iran which is deliberately destined to fail. She likes Tehran (there’s no city like it says another character) but without knowing the language, she does her job as an English teacher to young Iranians. By coincidence, Farhad (Cas Anvar), an executive with the company, hits on her and she responds. Adler, who scripted the adaptation of “The English Teacher,” makes us wonder whether the relationship with this playboy-exec is part of a game that she is playing or whether she has made the cardinal mistake of sleeping with the enemy.

As word gets back to Germany about their agent’s faux pas, arguments break out among Mossad agents, some of whom want to “take out” their flawed operative despite Thomas’s vigorous opposition. The most suspenseful scene arises when Rachel, burying her body on the floor of a truck with Iranian men whose loyalties are unclear. One of whom actually tries to rape her in a fearfully claustrophobic setting.

This is an espionage tale that’s more John Le Carré than 007, with a complexity of plotting that might make viewers desire a second viewing.

Kolja Brandt films partly in Berlin, though the areas representing Tehran are not given either on Wikipedia or the Internet Movie Database. In English, Hebrew and Farsi with English subtitles.

117 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B-
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B

AVA – movie review


Grasshopper Film
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Sadaf Foroughi
Screenwriter:  Sadaf Foroughi
Cast:  Mahour Jabbari, Bahar Nouhian, Leili Rashidi, Vahid Aghapour, Shayeste Sajadi, Sarah Alimardani, Houman Hoursan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/20/18
Opens: April 27, 2018
Ava Movie Poster
Watching this mother-from-hell berate her daughter reminds me of verses by the British poet and Oxford University graduate Philip Larkin (1922-1985):

“They f*** you up, your mum and dad/ They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had/  And add some extra, just for you.
But they were f***d up in their turn/ By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern/ And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man/ It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can/ And don’t have any kids yourself.”

Never mind that the mother (Bahar Noohian) in this case is Iranian and that the setting in a conservative society helps provoke the woman to extremes.  Ava (Mahour Jabbari) is the sixteen-year-old whose own kids years later will likely be as screwed up as she.  Most important, what is happening to her could happen to teens anywhere in the world and quite often does.  There is some truth that many adolescents, despite being in the best physical condition in their lives, are a troubled mess.

Sadaf Foroughi, in her freshman job at directing and writing, has made an auspicious beginning, one which quite often in the field of filmmaking leads to even more mature works to come.  This is the kind of story that could be semi-autographical, so strong and unrelieved are the tensions created in Ava that we suspect that Foroughi has endured this pain herself.

The title character, Ava, comes from a solid middle-class home, a well-appointed house with clean, tiled bathroom and granite countertops.  She attends a school where the students appear likewise well off and studious.  She’s a normal girl who may be shoved under a metaphoric bus thanks to her mother, a doctor, whose overreaction starts a spiral that her father (Vahid Aghapoor) may not ameliorate given that he’s an architect and often not home.  The trouble begins when Ava’s mom finds out that she has spent an hour in the park with Nima (Housman Hoursan), a young man who it unwittingly the target of a bet that Ava makes with her best friend Melody (Shayesteh Sajadi) that he will ask her out.  Her mother is frantic.  Alone with a boy for an hour!  She takes the girl to a gynecologist to confirm whether her daughter is a virgin.

Again: are there reasons for this overreaction?  It turns out that 17 years back, dad got mom pregnant. They married and apparently were not too pleased to have a child this early in their lives.  Mother is convinced that she has spooked her girl into acting like her, and this dovetails with the background of a conservative Muslim society.  It doesn’t take long for teacher-parent conferences with the school principal-from hell, Ms. Dehkhoda (Leili Rashidi), who wears white gloves perhaps to symbolize her expectation that her charges will be virgins—and not doing crazy things like seeing a boy in the park for an hour without supervision.

The girls in the school all wear black veils albeit with the front of their hair showing while the boys are like teen boys everywhere, in this case wearing red sneakers. As in the U.S. the girls curse as much as the boys.  The focus is on Ava, an intense young woman with a growing anxiety and rebellion that prompts her to cut her hand (and this is the hand of a violinist) and deliver a monologue to counter her mother’s own monologue in the film’s most melodramatic scene.  American teens watching this film will identify—that is, if they don’t mind reading the English subtitles while the performers speak Farsi.  (In English class, the girls throw spitballs at each other when the teacher’s back is turned, which is not likely a reflection of hostility toward the English-speaking world.)

Quite an interesting first film by Foughi and likewise a suitably intense performance by Jabbari, on whom lenser Sina Kermanizadeh concentrates sometimes in sharp close-up and other times in soft focus.  Tehran is the location.  In Farsi, English subtitles.

Unrated.  103 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B