The ensemble cast street-film is a staple of prestige cinema. Kenji Mizoguchi’s final film Street of Shame (1956), considered by many to be his opus, gets rightfully lauded as one of the pillars of this genre. Other examples include Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), Alejandro Inarritu’s 21 Grams (2003), and Agnes Varda’s Point Courte (1956). Especially in modern times, if you’re coming up in film, you can hedge your bets on a well-timed ensemble drama. Blame postmodernism or The Recognitions or John Dos Passos or whoever, but it’s as unspoken an awards token as films about drug use or old people in love.
These films differ from ensemble cast hangout films or ensemble cast thrillers in that they weave their dramatic weight with their setting, the ebbs and flows of the city their characters inhabit and, usually, how these characters connect via some human, temporal or physical nexus. In Wong Kar Wai’s unimpeachable Chungking Express (1994), this knot is the titular Hong Kong food-joint serving up tinfoil-wrapped chef’s salads and lousy pizza. In Mizoguchi’s masterpiece, it is the brothel in Tokyo’s Red Light District. In the woeful Love Actually (2003), it’s Juliet and Peter’s wedding in whimsical Christmastime London. In writer/director Ali Soozandeh’s gorgeous rotoscoped debut Tehran Taboo, the city is Tehran, and the nexus is a middle-class apartment building at the heart of culturally conflicted modern Iran.
Tehran Taboo follows four young Iranians struggling against the oppressive theocracy and cultural stigmas of their country, and weaves a convoluted plot dependent upon the confluence of family drama and sociocultural conflict. Para is a single mother who has turned to sex work to provide for her five-year-old son, and after she makes a desperate deal with a corrupt Ayatollah, he takes her for a concubine and puts her up in an apartment in the same building as newly-pregnant Sara (Zahra Amir Ebrahimi) and her traditional husband Moshen (Alireza Bayram, Homeland). At the same time, aspiring musician and university student Babak hooks up with countryside transplant Donya (Negar Mona Alizadeh) at a club one night, only to discover that she was a virgin promised to a mysterious and dangerous mafioso. Donya demands Babak scrounge up the money for an operation to ‘restore her virginity’ before she must consummate her marriage, lest the mobster kill them both. Para, Sara, Babak and Donya meet through good old-fashioned narrative circumstance, although it is done with restrained pacing and well-crafted tension, and it soon becomes clear how Donya’s operation, Para’s sex work and Sara’s mental instability all intersect. These characters subsist in a society where ‘virginity restoration’ is viable, hand-holding is a capital offense and even exodus is nearly impossible, although characters discuss the possibility of leaving all the time. Expect some well-earned twists and heart-wrenching moments of violence and pain deployed well throughout a tenacious and gripping character drama.
Stylistically, the rotoscoping works as a tool for strategically distancing the audience from the story; othering the viewer keeps them from the shoes of these characters, and forces them to acknowledge both their own privileges and the struggle of younger generations in modern Iran. At the same time, the rotoscoping highlights the contradictory nature of Iranian society – both modern and steeped in tradition, sort of unreal in the way it shudders and ebbs into existence in every frame, constantly at war with its own phenomenon.
There are splendid motifs scattered all throughout Tehran Taboo. A reoccuring scenario in a centralized photo center involves all four main characters framed against different colored backgrounds and photographed for various official purposes: marriage license, work permit, ‘souvenir,’ etc. It works as a well-formulated empathy technique that forces the audience to confront each of these characters head-on, staring back at them through the frame, with the omniscience of government authority twisting their faces into predetermined expressions based upon their circumstance. At the same time, some motifs are inserted too clumsily to be of much use: Para’s silent son’s disability is never given much attention, and at times it feels like a cheap plot device to imbue his character with some innocent mythic significance, as if muteness caused by trauma elevate him to some pedestal which must be protected from the cruelty of the world. There’s also some neat stuff with kites. It’s very German.
Tehran Taboo hits a lot of the same beats that modern ensemble cast dramas seem to depend upon: forbidden love, untraditional attitudes toward sexuality, unconventional relationships, childhood trauma, and mental illness. This may be Soozandeh’s first feature but he clearly did his homework. Sticking to the formula does nothing to hurt Tehran Taboo, but it does make an otherwise visceral story feel sluggish and mawkish. That said, the film emphasizes the one element that stands a chance of distinguishing it from the pantheon of ensemble street cinema: Tehran itself.
The contradictory nature of a national capitol in which everyone has a cell phone but women can’t work without their husbands’ permission makes for some heady cinema, but Soozandeh never gets too philosophical or documentarian with his approach. It’s also important to understand that this is a German-Austrian co-production, and Iranian-born Soozandeh has the benefit of approaching this film with the dichotomous perspectives of native and expat. The cultural norms in modern Shiite Iran are doubtlessly shocking to Western audiences – particularly the >60 crowd at Film Forum on a Saturday morning – but they’re faithfully and respectfully portrayed without the romantic Anglo-tourism of a Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). Soozandeh’s camera never condemns the practices of modern Iran with the cold hearted exceptionalism of a ‘civilized’ Westerner (i.e. colonialist). The malpractices of those in power – those who abuse women and disadvantage them under the guise of religious justification – are rightfully portrayed as villainous, but the society is not shown to be wholly evil, nor its citizens ignorant and backwards.
Para possesses remarkable agency against all odds, calcified by a vulnerable desperation for her mute five-year-old son, and easily ranks as the best and most well-developed character in the film. Her sex work is never portrayed as morally bankrupt or vile, and although it’s clear she originally turned to her profession out of a sense of desperation, she is not ‘rescued’ or ‘delivered’ from prostitution by some benign male figure. Eventually Para’s sex work is accepted as a fact of life, and her decision to hide it from her new friend Sara is not one of personal shame, but out of fear for what Iranian authorities would do to her if they found out. Similarly, Sara’s predicament stems from institutional misogyny. Unhappy with her domestic life, she applies for a job only to be turned down because her husband refuses to sign her permission slips. Her anxiety is portrayed through heavily stylized yet effective animated sequences, in which sound cuts out and the world deepens to a blood-pulsing red.
The film deserves due credit for focusing on the disempowerment of women as the most condemnable element of Iranian culture. Women are constantly stripped of their agency and their ability via their supposed male ‘partners,’ sanctioned by the wealthy theocratic government. It’s always tricky when critiquing films by male directors as ‘feminist,’ in this case if only because the subject matter runs the risk of being exploitative or macabre, but writer/director Soozandeh never oogles or parades the suffering of women on screen. The central drama stems from the plight of women, yes, but this is not so much exploitation as it is honest exploration of how Iranian society makes martyrs and scapegoats out of half their population. This alone qualifies Tehran Taboo as not only a good city-film, but an indispensable one, especially in this era of self-isolation, when we are so quick to close ourselves off from the many ways the world continues to oppress the marginalized, the feminine, and the young.
A beautifully rotoscoped and affecting look at modern theocracy and deviance in Iran, with particular care given to the plight of women in a misogynistic society that uses religion as an excuse for the oppression of female agency and sexuality. The plot delves into groan-worthy melodrama at times, but these moments are offset by the visceral truth behind the perspective. A worthy addition to the compendium of fine ensemble-cast city films.