27th Annual Festival of Films from Iran: INVERSION (2016)
written by: Benham Behzadi
produced by: Benham Behzadi
directed by: Benham Behzadi
runtime: 91 min.
U.S. release date. February 11, 2017 and February 12, 2017 (Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL)
Right from the start, “Inversion” won me over with its playful and sweet interaction between a stubborn elderly mother and her cheerful thirtysomething daughter. It didn’t take long for me to realize how content I’d be if this film consisted of just these two characters. But writer/director Behram Behzadi knows that there’s certainly more to these characters as well as the other family members we’ll meet soon and guides us into a complex story that revolves around familial obligation that conflicts with personal dreams and desires. “Inversion” (“Varoonegi”) premiered last year at Cannes Film Festival and was then shown in other festivals and now Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center is gifted with including this compelling drama as part of their annual focus on recent Iranian films.
Behzadi’s story takes place in a hazy modern-day Tehran, where the city’s air pollution has become dangerous due to thermal inversion. Most citizens have gotten used to it and continue with their lives, while others have ailments that are exacerbated by such an environment. Such is the case with Niloofar’s widowed mother (Shirin Yazdanbakhsh, “Melbourne” and “Avalanche“), who is told by her doctor that it is imperative for her to move north of Tehran in order for her to continue breathing. While their mother is hospitalized, Niloofar (Sahar Dolatshahi “Fireworks Wednesday”) is told by her two older siblings that she is to move out of the city with their mother and live with in a more conducive atmosphere. This is decided for Niloofar without asking her opinion or her thoughts on the matter, simply because she’s the youngest sibling who’s still single and childless.
At first, Niloofar goes along with this sudden decision, feeling obligated and pressured. But she has a lot going for herself in Tehran, which causes her to change her mind about what was decided for her. Besides a successful and growing tailoring business (which she says is everything to her) she runs with her friend, she is also currently being courted by an old friend and building constructor (a warm and personable, Ali Reza Aghakhani, who also starred in Behzadi’s “We Only Live Twice” from 2008), who is turning into a love interest. For years, Niloofar has dedicated her time and energy to working and taking care of her family, including her late father, but now her family duty is conflicting with her own personal ambitions. When she takes a stand, she is met with blowback from her brother (Ali Mosaffa “The Past”) and her married sister Homa (Roya Javidnia), who claim Niloofar is being selfish. Despite her unquestionable love for her mother, she is done with being disregarding and manipulated and is finally putting her foot down.
The film’s title definitely has a double-meaning, since Niloofar is making her own “inversion” in response to the male domination she’s experienced for decades in Iranian society. Behzadi trusts his audience, choosing not to hit us over the head what we already know about the treatment of Iranian women. Although the dynamic between men and women has changed over the years, there is still a traditional domineering stance that some men cling to, while women continue to find ways of expressing themselves, specifically their independence.
Dolatshahi is phenomenal as Niloofar, portraying a heroine with a sunny disposition that is soon squashed by the decision-makers that close in on her happiness. Watching the actress engage with the other characters that inhabit “Inversion” is an absolute joy. In particular – her scenes with her old flame which feel so authentic and her young niece Saba (Setareh Hosseini “Lantouri“), who has a special connection to her aunt – offer moments that draw us close to this conflicted woman. While this is my introduction to the work of Dolatshahi, I’d certainly be interested in seeing more of her in film.
“Inversion” has a smart and astute screenplay that provides the film with great dialogue, yet it never feels too talky. Behzadi is just as concerned with providing viewers with a sense of place, as seen in the continuous shots of congested Tehran traffic amid the choking smog. He also deliberately includes the incessant ring tones and buzzing of Niloofar’s cell phone, that adds to the distractions and annoyances that the character endures.
Current Iranian films continue to offer strong and vital female characters and “Inversion” can confidently be added to that list. Behzadi succeeds at delivering romance that feels natural, family dysfunction that feels relatable regardless where you’re from and a struggling, yearning protagonist who is fascinating to follow.