‘Terrestrial Verses’ Review: Iranian Mosaic Shatters with Stories of Totalitarian Life

A woman with a lost dog, a small girl performing a TikTok dance in a chador, and a worn-out filmmaker trying to get his movie project off the ground are just three of the characters populating the omnibus of single-take vignettes in writer-directors Alireza Khatami and Ali Asgari’s “Terrestrial Verses.” Combined, these nine stories give off a powerful cumulative effect as we see the petty bureaucracies and paper-pushing quotidian blocks to working-class life unfold and whittle these people down. Cultural, religious, and institutional constraints wear down everyday citizens in Tehran in stories that may lack a beginning, middle, or end but still arrive at a well-drawn if eerie and ambiguous conclusion that would feel dystopic if the events weren’t so ordinary.

The sole Iranian entry in the 2023 Cannes Official Selection, “Terrestrial Verses” opens with a panoramic, widescreen shot of the Tehran cityscape. At first gently and then overwhelmingly, the swell and clatter of urban noise, and eventually screaming and sirens and the sounds of panic, fill the scene before a cut-to-black that introduces us to the film’s first character. A new father (Bahram Ark) is told that the name he and his wife has chosen for their infant child, David, is too Western, and unseen lawmen says the government won’t approve their choice. Most of the vignettes are established talking-head documentary interview style, with the interviewers (in the form of police or government pencil pushers) placed behind the camera and never seen.

In the next segment, an eight-year-old girl (Arghavan Sabani) bristles against the traditional garments an off-camera saleswoman pushes on her, wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt under her religious garb while dancing to pop music on headphones. The most powerful centerpiece of “Terrestrial Verses” finds a man named Farbod (Hossein Soleimani) trying to get a driver’s license, but he’s grilled about the collection of tattoos on his body, the self-inked scrawls of what he claims is a Rumi poem that turns out to be about binge-drinking.

Another vignette resonates with recent controversies surrounding Iranian filmmakers like Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, imprisoned and banned from leaving the country (though Panahi has recently been freed) due to their outspoken anti-establishment political views. Here, a frustrated filmmaker Ali (Farzin Mohades) tries to establish a shooting contract with a producing partner after a widespread investor dropout over decades. But he’s told that his screenplay is too critical of the Iranian-Islamic patriarchy and more representative of what the partner alleges as Western hegemony. Ali is asked to rip out pages from his script, and include more stories from the Quran to present a more positive depiction of Islamic rule.

Cinematographer Adib Sobhani frames each section — another harrowing sequence includes a school girl called into the principal’s office after being seen on a motorcycle with a boy — in the 4:3 Academy ratio, a literal embodiment of the claustrophobia each of these characters feel. The camera never moves, zooms, or flinches to make us feel suspended in each moment and aligned with the characters’ frustrations. As these are mere snapshots of life, some are more characters than others, with several citizens set up as more thinly sketched stand-ins for broader issues. Near the film’s closing, an elderly woman in hijab implores a policeman to release her missing dog, which the precinct may or may not have possession of. Who would want to use a Chihuahua as a police dog, she asks? She’s sent away empty-handed and destroyed by the slow-drip needling of questions.

Famed Iranian actor Ardeshir Kazemi gets a silent cameo in the film’s final shot as a “100-year-old man,” according to the press notes, literally bent over by the shadow of totalitarianism as the city outside darkens, the frame broadens to a widescreen aspect ratio, and those sounds we heard in the opening sequence prove a disturbing, apocalyptic preamble to a city outside the man’s office finally combusting.

Iranian directors Alireza Khatami and Ali Asgari joined hands after having their first features, “Oblivion Verses” and “Disappearance” respectively, selected for the Venice Film Festival in 2017. They described in press notes the process of getting their films off the ground as being like characters in “Waiting for Godot” — and the citizens they sketch in “Terrestrial Verses” are similarly caught in a waiting game to nowhere under the facility of totalitarian rule. This film is as muted in its approach to character and drama as its color palette, but the result is devastating.

Grade: B+

“Terrestrial Verses” premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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