Tehran: City of Love Review
Three frustrated singles yearn for romance and intimacy in director Ali Jaberansari’s Tehran: City of Love. But dating in the Iranian capital contains pitfalls great and small, the film's title growing more and more ironic the further we delve into the stories of the characters presented here.
Jaberansari (who co-wrote the screenplay with Maryam Najafi) introduces us to champion bodybuilder turned wannabe actor, Hessam (Amir Hessam Bakhtiari); beauty clinic receptionist, Mina (Forough Ghajabagli), who struggles with her weight; and morose funeral singer, Vahid (Mehdi Saki), whose fiancée is breaking up with him.
They each have a secret – Hessam is gay and falling for the young man he is coaching to compete in a bodybuilding tournament; Mina poses as "Sara", a younger, more confident woman, to catfish male patients at her clinic; and Vahid wants out of his funeral singing gig, despite it being a role handed down to him by his father.
All are stymied in their desire to live the life they want, mostly by some aspect of Iranian law or custom. Indeed, the growing friction between modernity and tradition is the movie's main theme, exemplified by Hessam, whose sexuality is illegal in Iran, a country where sleeping with another man carries the death penalty.
The film reminded me a little of last year’s Tehran Taboo, which I reviewed favourably for this site, particularly in the way it focusses on separate characters with little or no connection to one another. But where Ali Soozandeh’s animation came across as a furious gut-punch, in which Tehran was a truly terrifying place, like something out of 1984, City of Love is an altogether less bellicose affair.
The Tehran we see here isn’t a million miles removed from any other big, bustling city, its citizens living regular lives, as they busy themselves at the gym, watching TV, getting Botox, and eating ice cream. The police appear just once – to break up an illegal wedding and even that is completed peaceably. That isn't to say City Of Love underplays the issues facing Hessam, Mina and Vahid, it just explores them in a way that is warm, witty and full of empathy. You'd never make the mistake of assuming any one of them was truly happy, though.
Bakhtiari, a muscle-packed hulk of a man, with a huge chiselled face like an Easter Island statue, brings surprising subtlety to his role as Hessam. We are at no point explicitly told he is gay, but it becomes evident pretty quickly, the actor’s small gestures and furtive glances communicating so much. Jaberansari’s storytelling is similarly strong, although maybe he overeggs the homoeroticism of certain aspects of bodybuilding just a little too much. Some may question why the director doesn't make the character’s sexuality less ambiguous, but I suspect he’s deliberately showing just how far under the radar gay people in Iran are forced to live their lives.
Most of the humour in Tehran: City of Love lands successfully. I loved the running joke about “the best French actor” Louis Garrel (Hessam is meant to be appearing in a film with him), who no one in the city has heard of, and Vahid’s painful attempts at parlaying his funeral singing talents into something more upbeat (“Your voice isn’t bad but it’s got this sorrow in it – not for weddings”).
There are also some fine sight gags – Mina dragging a colossal teddy bear, a gift from an unwanted admirer, around the streets as she tries and fails to find a taxi to take her home, and Hessam, following a workout with the object of his desire, furiously shaking the contents of a flask, his sexual frustration palpable.
This is Tehran-born Canadian Jaberansari’s second feature after 2013’s Falling Leaves. In 2007, he attended the late Abbas Kiarostami's filmmaking workshops in Tehran and that director’s influence shows through here, particularly in the movie's tragicomic feel and a predilection for filming his characters conversing in cars.
The director makes effective use of tableau shots – Hessam at home on the sofa with his dad, Mina sitting at a bus-stop with the aforementioned teddy bear, Vahid brooding at the mosque. As well as being aesthetically pleasing, the framing adds to the notion rigid structures have been imposed upon them , limiting their dreams and desires, penning them in. They are, quite simply, trapped.
Tehran: City of Love is out in cinemas on October 11