A locked-off camera can convey many things — watchfulness, stealthiness, clinical remove or elegant restraint — but seldom is it as evocatively accusatory as in Alireza Khatami and Ali Asgari’s “Terrestrial Verses.” Here, its use over a series of stationary vignettes, bookended by dramatic images of urban collapse, becomes an increasingly inspired choice even as the themes start to repeat and the resonances with the ongoing Women Life Freedom movement in Iran become more apparent. Putting the viewer in the uncomfortable position of interviewer/interrogator in nine encounters between everyday Iranians and some manner of authority figure, this is punchy first-person filmmaking, from the point of view of the last person you want to be.
Some of the stories are mildly comedic in tone, especially early on. In the first of cinematographer Adib Sobhani’s crisp, boxed-in 4:3 compositions, we are introduced to a father (Bahram Ark) being chastised for not choosing a sufficiently Islamic name for his newborn son. The scene then switches to a little girl (Arghavan Sabani) barely tolerating a cajoling, hectoring saleswoman’s patter as she’s fitted for her school uniform: a child-sized abaya and veil, which swallows up her Mickey Mouse T-shirt and sparkly pink headphones. All she really wants to do is dance along to the pop music playing in her ears. The subjects gets progressively older from scene to scene: In the next, a teenage girl (Sarvin Zabetian) is interrogated by her school principal, who believes the girl was seen riding to school on a motorbike with a boy. Their meeting ends with a twist, as the girl turns the tables on the older woman in a satisfyingly satirical manner.
Not many of the stories deliver such catharsis though. The mood darkens and the off-screen voices become more freighted with threat. Growing unease rumbles under every scene, building alongside Alireza Alavian’s clever, ambient sound design. A young woman (Sadaf Asgari) is accused of driving without her hijab; a middle-aged man (Majid Salehi) endures pointless humiliations as he applies for a menial job; an older woman (Gouhar Kheri Andish) petitions a police officer to help her find her beloved lost dog; and a filmmaker (Farzin Mohades) must literally rip chunks out of his screenplay to meet the censor’s ideological demands. In between are the two standout sequences. In one, a young man (Hossein Soleimani) renewing his driver’s license gets involved in an increasingly dubious, obscurely abusive charade with a bureaucrat with an unhealthy interest in his tattooed body. In the other, a clearly uncomfortable young woman (Faezeh Rad) is interviewed for a position by an unseen but evidently predatory company boss in a hotel room — a situation that will be familiar to many women, whether or not we have ever worn a hijab.
Indeed the larger point that “Terrestrial Verses” makes, for all the direct simplicity of its presentation, is that the code of behavior mandated by the narrowest interpretation of Islamic law is merely a convenient vehicle through which to channel deeper and more universally practised bigotries and oppressions. The ostensible piety of the offscreen interviewers is shown in almost every case to be a hypocritical pretense, a convenient means through which to exert a much more fundamental (and fundamentalist) exercise of power, and by which to satisfy much baser instincts.
The cast is uniformly excellent, especially given the rigors of a presentation which provides the actors with literally nowhere to hide. In the driver’s license segment, for example, Soleimani is the sole onscreen presence yet delivers a tour-de-force performance of dawning incredulity, waning hope, rising disgust and ultimate resignation. There and elsewhere, we end up parsing the subject’s every flicker of expression, every subtle shift in body language and every hesitation in reply, for cracks and weaknesses. And we almost don’t realize we’re doing it, so subtly are we insinuated into the position of the power-holder in an interaction with the relatively powerless.
The film’s vignette structure is inevitably uneven, and the stories ultimately circle the same set of institutional injustices and corruptions without ever suggesting a way out, bar perhaps — given the quasi-apocalyptic bookends — the end of the world. But “Terrestrial Verses,” named for a poem by towering Iranian feminist poet and filmmaker Forugh Farrokhzad, still grips across its starkly eloquent stanzaic form. And though co-writers and directors Khatami andi Asgari are clearly on the side of the ordinary oppressed Iranian, perhaps their film is especially powerful in giving us the discomfiting view from the oppressor’s chair. How strange it is to see through the eyes of petty tyrants who can somehow look at decent people and see only pawns and playthings.