Anahit Behrooz


Beyond the Wall – first-look review

Vahid Jalilvand crafts an intimate puzzle box of a film, regarding the lives of two strangers that intersect in a fascinating and tragic manner.

In a sparse apartment somewhere in Iran, two people are covered in bruises. The first, a recently blinded man, strikes against furniture and walls, bloodied and scraped, unable to orient himself in his newly darkened apartment. His senses have been rendered apart, the mushroom cloud bloom of smoke no longer intimately connected to the crisp crackle of cigarette paper burning. Desperate to end his new reality, the man Ali (Navid Mohammadzade) wraps plastic around his head, hands jammed against the exposed pipework of his shower before a sudden pounding calls him back to this world. His building manager is at the door: a woman has escaped from police custody and is hiding somewhere in the building.

This is Beyond The Wall’s second player, her face battered from some unexplained violence, filled with terror and stowed away in the blind man’s apartment. Having participated in a workers’ protest that turned ugly when the state police descended, Leila (Diana Habibi) is now wanted for the death of an officer for reasons she herself cannot understand. And thus is set the stage for Vahid Jalilvand’s meticulous, slow-burn of a puzzle box, in which ribboned strata of time, memory, and yearning fit neatly and then collapse together – where very little happens but none of it is quite what it seems.

Modern Iranian cinema has always been an allegorical medium for reasons of necessity as well as cultural specificity; a fiercely political mode of filmmaking craftily winding itself around the limitations of state censorship. Jalilvand’s latest film is no different. Contained within Ali’s austere, crumbling apartment is a microcosm of the Iranian state: the barren destitution of its walls, the vicious intrusion of interrogators, and a constant, unnerving sense of surveillance.

Many of its narrative choices initially feel flimsy – why don’t the police obtain a warrant and search the premises instead of simply loitering threateningly outside? – but Beyond the Wall is a film that rewards patience, drawing its deliberately oblique, stray threads together into an eviscerating conclusion that foregrounds solidarity as the sole beacon of hope in an oppressive world.

A scene where Mohammadzade’s terse and grim-faced Ali wordlessly divides his plate of rice and khoresh in half for Leila is almost unbearably tender, encapsulating an understated cinematic approach that lingers in the disinterested yet unwavering bonds that can exist between people in impossible circumstances.

What at first presents as a skeletal and bleak narrative slowly reveals itself as a deft and curious chamber piece of Brechtian proportions, in which bare walls become a blank canvas for impulses towards freedom, and every interaction, every gesture becomes a navigation of the lines between fact and delusion, controlled and liberated, and the uncanny realities – performed or not – that we ourselves set.

Jalilvand has spoken of an Iranian poem that formed the inspiration for Beyond the Wall: “Imagine that they take the bread away from the table, and the words from a book, blossoms from the trees and the smile from our lips, / What will they do to our dreams?”. The resulting film is an apt ode to the walls that cannot be breached, the strongholds of agency and compassion that no crushing system can touch.

Published 8 Sep 2022

Tags: Beyond the Wall Vahid Jalilvand Venice Film Festival

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