Yalda – A Night for forgiveness

Evening, a sprawling metropolis of 4-line highways and imposing towers. It could be anywhere, but we soon learn its Tehran. A party battle their way through the traffic jams to reach some sort of institutional building, which turns out to be a tv station. The younger woman, Maryam, is in handcuffs. She is to be the star guest on the tv programme The Joy of Forgiveness, which only airs on the winter festival of Yalda.

Here’s how it works. Maryam has been tried and convicted of murdering her much older husband. There’s one way of avoiding the death sentence, and unfortunately that’s not by pointing out the flimsiness of the case against her. If she appears on the show, and her ex-husband’s daughter, Mona, agrees to forgive her, the tv company will pay the necessary honour money and she’s spared execution.

Mona is closer to Maryam’s age than her father, and the two women used to be best friends, almost sisters. But plot has drawn them apart and it’s not at all clear whether the embittered Mona will agree to spare her old mate. As evidence piles up, Mona’s face remains impassive throughout, giving no clue what her final decision will be.

The tv show lasts for one hour, and most of the film runs in real time inside the studio where most of the workers are women and the executives are male. The executives are desperate for good ratings and always have one eye on the number of SMS votes that the programme has generated. This means that they have an interest in the programme’s verdict, which they do their best to influence.

The set is not the most luxurious, and for a lot of the time we just see a flurry of backstage people trying to keep up with the changing pace of real life. Every so often, there is a break, presumably for adverts, and people try to calm down the guests and make sure they don’t run off (not always successfully). There is something tremendously anarchic about the behaviour off set that belies the on-screen slick professionalim.

This being Entertainment, it’s not enough that the show contains a re-enactment of the alleged murder and the confrontation between Maryam and Mona. At one stage a woman is wheeled on to read her latest poem. You expect that any minute you’ll see a soothsayer and Howard Beale screaming that he’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take any of it.

Like Network, this is a satire, which I’m not sure that all the reviewers fully understood. And like Network it strongly reflects an underlying truth. But what truth? I worry a bit that when a Hollywood film talks about sexism, it is a film about sexism. But when an Iranian film talks about sexism it is seen as being a film about sexism in Iran, which is sometimes almost used to excuse Western misogyny.

And yet, the main butt of the satire here is not the clerical state but the tv show, where ratings are so much more important than anything else that they play a serious role in deciding whether somebody lives or dies. So I’m a little disappointed that many reviews would rather talk about patriarchal Mullahs than the more evident focus of the satire.

Rant aside, the film is extraordinarily well acted. As the fragile Maryam, Sadaf Asgari looks incredibly young and vulnerable, not at all in control of her fate. Meanwhile, Behnaz Jafari as Mona is cold, thoughtful, unwilling to display any unnecessary emotion. The scene is set for a decision that could go either way.

This is a film about sexism and class differences, about how people make history but not in conditions of their own choosing, but if you have enough money, you have many more conditions from which you can choose. What it is not is a film specifically about Iran, and if we don’t see what it also says about our own society, we are missing the most important part of its message.

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