All said and done, Iranian cinema has managed to stay afloat despite rigid censorship laws and a ruling clergy not well disposed towards the arts, particularly cinema. And movies from Iran have found a way of talking about the pressing issues of the day without offending the rulers. Mohsen Abdolvahab’s Being Born -- which was shown at the ongoing Tokyo International Film Festival -- is an intimate narrative about a loving husband and wife.
While Pari acts in plays, her husband, Farhad, makes movies. They have a son, and are content with their lives till an unplanned pregnancy threatens to disrupt their peace and joy. Farhad wants the child to be aborted, but Pari is dead against killing any living being. And there is no meeting point, with Pari deciding to shift away from Tehran to her father’s house. “I do not want you to drag me to a clinic for an abortion,” she tells him.
What is riveting about the film is the director’s ability to tell a story that is fraught with angst and emotion with the least of melodrama. The couple, in spite of being angry with each other, is absolutely civil and go their separate ways. There is no divorce, only a separation. “Many couples live apart and work out of different cities,” Pari tells Farhad, who is, of course, shaken. There is an extremely sorrowful scene at the end when we see the man shattered and miserable at the thought of having to live all by himself.
In a way, Being Born is reminiscent of another great Iranian movie, A Separation by Asghar Farhadi -- where again a highly emotional marital problem is handled with subtle finesse. It was brilliance personified.
Talking to the media after his screening, Abdolvahab said: “In Iran, 98% of the people follow Islam. There is discussion about abortion. According to the Quran, it is taking someone else’s life, so it’s a major sin. And so, from a religious point of view, if one considers having an abortion, they will go through many troubles. But with a changing society, there are some people who have no other choice but to have one. Because of that, some people will have abortions secretly.”
All said and done, the helmer had the guts to tackle a subject considered a taboo. Even talking about it makes people uncomfortable. As the executive producer of Being Born added during the same meeting: The film can also be read on a metaphorical level: Since the couple is a moviemaker and an actor, Being Born can be seen as a statement about the situation facing artists in contemporary Iran.
Marco Dutra’s Brazilian work, The Silence of the Sky, is also a couple’s story, but one that is terrifying and arresting at the same time. It begins with a long rape, but captured with sensitivity. We only see the wife’s contorted face as she is raped by two masked men in her own house. There is a glint of fear on her face, and a brief flash of a knife tells us why.
Shocking as it may seem, the husband returns home at that point and sees his wife being molested, but is so frozen with fear that by the time he gathers his wits to confront the rapists, they are gone. He chases them but they give him the slip.
What follows after this is a psychological drama. The wife takes a shower and does not tell the husband about her trauma, and he keeps mum as well, probably wracked by a deep sense of guilt at having been so helpless. A virtual coward indeed.
The Silence of the Sky is pure arthouse fare with simmering traces of excellence in performance and photography. But the narrative is not always convincing: we never understand why the wife does not take her husband into confidence. Is the marriage fractured? Or is there so much self-loathing that she just cannot open up?
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Tokyo International Film Festival.)