Iranian filmmaking’s reliance on formal restrictions and secrecy are given new variations in Terrestrial Verses, co-directed by Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatami, who’ve both enjoyed previous festival success with their solo features. Chiming indirectly with the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests last year––the largest civil unrest in Iran for a generation––Asgari and Khatami take a panoramic view of its urban citizenry through nine vignettes, observing confrontations with state brass behaving at their most paranoid and arbitrary.
Terrestrial Verses immediately impresses with its sense of focus and minimalism, yet struggles to generate a more complex thesis as it develops, falling into repetition and overstatement. Abbas Kiarostami and Mania Akbari’s Ten (a film now mired in retrospective accusations over the former’s alleged misconduct) is a notable precursor to its method, consigning ten sequences to its car interior and letting insights emerge organically, at least when we were more innocent of the circumstances of its making. What’s striking about Asgari and Khatami’s film is how the duresses and censures experienced in each vignette start resembling one another, an unfortunate but maybe intentional mirroring, with its opening aerial shot of a skyscraper-laden Tehran an eerie prelude to this uniform structure.
Its most successful sequences have a heightened tone, alighting on micro-aggressions and coercions that might be brushed aside if these interactions were taking place in a more realistic manner; instead, a continual point of disagreement evokes bumping one’s ulnar nerve (or “funny bone”) against a hard surface. In the first segment, a young father faces pushback from a records office secretary, as naming his son “David” rather than, say, “Davood” is not considered appropriately Islamic. In segments that resemble one another, nodding to the stanzaic resonance of the film’s title, two young woman are accused of impropriety for, respectively, being seen with a young man and driving sans head covering; the accusers then flail awkwardly to prove their case, although the overall balance of power remains in their favour.
The static, “interrotron”-style framing also lends Terrestrial Verses its particular impact: in each sequence the camera is unwaveringly set up directly at the other scene participant’s eyeline while we hear the authority figure’ evenly assertive voice off-screen. Shot in deep focus with a wide lens, marooning the poor, sole camera subject in a lonely void of bureaucratic scrutiny, a particular comic timing comes about from these duologues: we can see brows furrowed, eyes squinting in disbelief, and body language composing itself in anticipation of the verbal tennis match about to ensue.
Following the more nervily comic early sections, further discomfort is imposed on these ordinary Iranians through taking stock of their bodies. Following a MeToo-leaning job interview segment with a young woman that only serves to reassert the abusive power dynamics we now know so well, two male jobseekers are themselves forced into a physical inspection by their interviewers: one to take full view of his tattoos––spelling out in Farsi the lines of a ghazal (a short, amatory poem––and the other to verify his full understanding of the Islamic hand-washing procedure. Through their concentrated and pared-down survey of institutional power, Asgari and Khatami show foremost how no behavior and social practice is spared the state’s gaze, and personal autonomy––especially for those outside the elites––remains only a myth.
Terrestrial Verses debuted at the 76th Cannes Film Festival.