Mark Asch


The Seed of the Sacred Fig – first-look review

An Iranian judge appointed to Tehran's Revolutionary Court grapples with dissent both at work and at home in Mohammad Rasoulof’s politically charged thriller.

A hot favorite for the Palme d’Or before anyone at Cannes had seen it, Mohammad Rasoulof’s The Seed of the Sacred Fig arrived late in the Competition carried by a wave of urgency: set against the backdrop of Iran’s 2022 women’s protests, the film put its director, already facing an eight-year prison term for his previous film, in additional legal jeopardy, occasioning his secret flight from his homeland and arrival at Cannes for a several-minute ovation even before the screening started, during which he held up photos of lead actors Soheila Golestani and Misagh Zare, who remain in Iran. Timely, anguished, and ultimately cathartic, the movie meets its moment.

The first image we see in the film is a close-up of a hand laying out bullets on a table, and then setting down a pen, for the recipient to sign for them. Weapons and words, violence and bureaucracy, are the twin poles on which power rests here. It’s a system upheld by functionaries such as Iman (Zare), a civil servant promoted after twenty years to an investigator’s role within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Court. The gun is for his family’s protection, and though his wife Najmeh (Golestani) is nervous, she’s also excited for the allotment of a larger apartment, so their two daughters, college-aged Rezvan (Mahsa Rostami) and slightly younger Sana (Setareh Maleki) no longer have to share a bedroom.

Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion, and so must Iman’s daughters. Having long been kept in the dark about the precise nature of their father’s work, Rezvan and Sana are warned about how to behave in public, who and who not to associate with, and to stay off social media; Najmeh is not specific about what behaviors should or should not be allows, but the investigator’s daughters should know well enough.

Iman himself is also learning how to self- censor: his first assignment at work is to rubber-stamp a death sentence without first reviewing the case first; knowing what a refusal to do so would mean for his family, he loses sleep over the assignment, and carelessly leaves his gun in the pile of dirty clothes for his wife to pick up. At the same time, he puts on a mask of unquestionable righteousness for his wife and daughters.

In general, characters tentatively question authority to their superiors, and enforce it viciously on their subjects: as a classmate of the Rezvan is caught up the protests and violent state crackdown following the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, Najmeh asserts to her daughters that all the students and women who were beaten and arrested “must have done something” to deserve it, but also risks legal exposure and her husband’s reputation by pulling strings to locate the missing girl. When someone comes into the apartment wounded by the buckshot sprayed at a crowd by police, Najmeh tweezes the steel out her face so tenderly, but every time she leaves the flat she pulls her hijab a little tighter.

Though the film is epic in length and ambitious in subject, it also has a hurried, shoestring quality. The widescreen frame is mostly used to lay out the family flat at eye level, and it’s this domestic interior to which the action is largely confined.

Restricted by their parents from going out, Rezvan and Sana listen to the chants out the window, and furtively watch videos on their phones (via a VPN). Rasoulof inserts a number of real, confusing, stunning videos of the 2022 and 2023 protests into the film, on-the-fly civilian journalism capturing limp and bleeding bodies, screams, the moments when the uniformed or plainclothes police batter women with clubs or chase a man with a car. This gives the film the raw feeling of a real-time response to unfolding events; Rezvan and Sana speak in hushed, desperate whispers even in the privacy of their own home.

Their confinement stands in for the larger confinement of women in Iranian society, but the doomscrolling aspect of the film, the power of the images and the powerlessness of the viewers, gives it resonances beyond Iran. That said, the applause halfway throughout the film, when Rezvan finally speaks up and articulates a political consciousness, was surely for the “Women, Life, Freedom” protests.

From that moment, Sacred Fig becomes a different film. Up until its halfway point, the film resembles one of Asghar Farad’s painstakingly procedural dramas, which capture the intense legal and moral scrutiny of life in the Islamic Republic, showing how one barely-glimpsed incident, or a single personal miscalculation, reverberates through a web of closely interconnected characters to life-altering effect. In the scene immediately following, Rezvan’s speech, Chekhov’s — sorry, Iman’s — gun goes missing, and so does Rasoulof’s interest in balancing the motivations of his entire ensemble.

As the state loses control of its people, Iman loses control of his family, and evolves over the course of the film into patriarchy personified. To consolidate his crumbling authority, he turns the state’s coercive apparatus onto his own wife and daughters, using interrogation techniques, intimidation, psychological abuse and gaslighting on what seems to him, in his terror, as a viper’s nest of deceitful women.

Late in the film, the location shifts, to another inconspicuous semi-licit filming location, out of the way in rural Iran, a family estate in the shadow of old ruins, and the genre shifts as well. Rasoulof throws a surprising twist into the missing-gun plot, one that alters the film’s allegorical calculus, and Rezvan and Sana’s budding feminine defiance flowers into final-girl resourcefulness as Rasoulof stages a home-invasion thriller with Iman as something like the Islamic Republic’s Jack Torrance a once-familiar father figure turned embodiment of masculine demons and childhood terrors, a pursuing ogre in a fairy-tale labyrinth. The applause at the conclusion may have been in gratitude to Rasoulof for giving his women an ending that the stark realist register of his film would not seem to permit — though given the thrilling intrigue and high stakes of his own escape from persecution, it’s appropriate enough that The Seed of the Sacred Fig ultimately becomes a melodrama of resistance.

Published 25 May 2024

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