A dark chronicle of one Iranian woman’s efforts to maintain both her freedom and the custody of her child, writer-director Ida Panahandeh’s Nahid is a compelling companion piece to 2011 Oscar winner A Separation, focusing on a different milieu but detailing a similar emotional struggle and crushing social atmosphere.
A dark chronicle of one Iranian woman’s efforts to maintain both her freedom and the custody of her child, writer-director IdaPanahandeh’s Nahid is a compelling companion piece to 2011 Oscar winner A Separation, focusing on a different milieu but detailing a similar emotional struggle and crushing social atmosphere. Featuring an excellent lead turn from Sareh Bayat– who played the slighted caretaker in Asghar Farhadi’s movie – this promising directorial debut is perhaps too slow-burn for widespread art house release, but should find a few takers in Europe and select territories following a debut in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes.
Set in a dreary town bordering the Caspian sea, the story (co-written with Arsalan Amiri) follows the travails of divorced mother, Nahid (Bayat), who works as a typist when she’s not scolding her rowdy 10-year-old, Amir Reza (Milad HasanPour). Divorced from the deadbeat Ahmad (NavidMohammad Zadeh), who has both drug and gambling problems, Nahid is trying to stay afloat while hoping to restart her love life with hotel owner and widower, Massoud (Pejman Bazeghi).
But in a country where strict nuptial laws often dictate affairs of the heart, Nahid cannot openly engage in her new relationship without first tying the knot. Or in this case, getting “temporarily married” under a legal clause allowing consenting adults to wed for short periods of time, with the possibility of renewing the contract. The situation puts the working-class mom in a sticky position: she wants to be with Massoud but also wants to maintain her liberty. Meanwhile, her erratic ex threatens to ask the judge for full custody of Amir Reza, using it as leverage to try and win his wife back.
The film starts off rather enigmatically, with Panahandeh only revealing certain pieces of information as the stakes are slowly established. Gradually the noose begins to tighten around Nahid, and we begin to see how little room for maneuver she has, especially as a single mother with hardly enough money to pay the rent. Even when she does finally marry Massoud – if only for a one-month trial period – Nahidsoon finds herself in the unpleasant shoes of a kept woman forced to babysit her new husband’s daughter.
Although the drama takes its time to unravel, the filmmakers manage to delve into some hitherto unseen aspects of Iranian life, including the unusual marriage laws and Ahmad’s troubles with heroin (though we never actually see him shooting up on screen). The marginal characters and seaside setting are far from the middle-class Tehran of A Separation, and while Nahid does not build toward the same devastating conclusion, it offers a glimpse into a place that’s equally ridden with angst and forlornness, in a land where people are crushed under the weight of social mores.
Playing a different kind of woman than she did in the Farhadi film – although one also beset by economic and marital woes – Bayat skillfully channels Nahid’s various acts of resistance as she tries to make her own way in the world, sacrificing plenty of comfort to do so. Bazeghil is strong as a bourgeois type searching for romantic stability, while Mohammad Zadeh (I’m Not Angry!) is impressive as a volatile but touching father who winds up hurting himself much more than those around him.
With a distant and unhurried style that sometimes recalls the work of Yasujiro Ozu, Panahandeh films her heroine in a series of fixed medium-shots, as if Nahid were incapable of escaping the frame. It’s a technique that corresponds well to her predicament, although one that sometimes lacks verve. Still, the recurring image – seen from both a regular and CCTV cam – of Nahid and Massoud isolated on the beach speaks volumes about a place where freedom lies somewhere far off on the horizon.