Trangressive and taboo, Ali Soozandeh’s rotoscope animation is grim but packs an emotional punch
There’s bleak and then there’s Ali Soozandeh’s grim gut-punch of an animation. Tehran Taboo inhabits places so dark it makes I, Daniel Blake look like Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Thankfully, though, the film amounts to a whole lot more than a cinematic holiday in other people’s misery.
Iranian-born German director Soozandeh, who makes his feature debut after previously working on music videos and documentaries, focusses on five characters as he attempts to explore sex, patriarchy, religious hypocrisy and state repression in the titular Iranian capital. He introduces us to prostitute Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh) and her mute son, Elias (Bilal Yasar); pregnant but deeply unhappy young bride Sara (Zahra Amir Ebrahimi); struggling musician Babak (Arash Marandi), and Donya (Negar Mona Alizadeh), a young woman he has hooked up with who now needs cash for an operation to “restore her virginity”.
It’s structured as three separate stories with the characters wandering in and out of each other’s lives, sometimes to benevolent effect, at others the precise opposite. As Soozandeh has said in interviews, sex is a taboo subject in Iran and his aim was to tackle it head on. He certainly does so, mostly to shine a light on the trenchant hypocrisy of the country’s ruling theocracy. These are powerful, corrupt men and exemplified here by the divorce court judge who tricks Pari into becoming his mistress. This elite are free to indulge their every kink (the judge likes being choked during sex) while the regime’s Morality Police hassle unmarried couples for walking hand in hand in public and detain Babak for having porn mags in the boot of his car.
The most extreme horrors of the Iranian regime are kept mostly on the down low, although Soozandeh does show us a public hanging and such scenes are more impactful because of their rarity. Instead, the director focusses on the exhausting, labyrinthine slog of achieving anything in Iran if you are a woman or do not have the money to pay for it (even a death sentence can be commuted if you possess enough cash). Pari wants a divorce from her drug-addict husband who languishes in jail. She can’t get it without his permission. Sara, bored out of her mind and used as a skivvy by her mother-in-law, wants a job. She can’t get one without her other half’s consent. When these women aren’t being treated as indentured servants, they may as well be invisible.
The film’s greatest strength is Soozandeh’s script which barely wastes a single line and contains a good deal of effective foreshadowing. The final 10 minutes provide a trio of perfectly delivered narrative jolts, one you see coming, the other two you really don’t. Some of the film’s most shocking moments are more matter of fact. Elias – despite being only six years old – accompanies Pari as she visits her “clients”. The first scene features her in a cab attempting to give the driver a blowjob while Elias sits in the back.
Anyone expecting the surreal humour of Persepolis (2007) or Divorce Iranian Style‘s (1998) cool dispassion will be in for a rude awakening. This is pitiless stuff that loses none of its power for being animated. In fact, the rotoscope style Soozandeh employs – which you’ll recognise from the likes of A Scanner Darkly (2006) and Loving Vincent (2017) – lends proceedings a strange, heightened reality. It’s life but not quite as we know it.
If Tehran Taboo has a problem, it’s that it only shows us the most wretched side of Iran. Surely there are people in Tehran – male or female – who live a happy, fulfilled existence despite the regime’s diktats. Sometimes, the film’s characters are little more than caricatures, especially Sara’s mother-in-law. Complete with cackling laugh, she has all the subtlety of a Disney villain and you half-expect her to hand Sara a poisoned apple at any moment.
A little light with all that shade wouldn’t have gone amiss. In fact, Elias provides the film’s only true sliver of hope. He’s a gentle child, who is kind to the stray cats that live in and around the apartment block that provides the setting for many of the scenes here. You hope he won’t grow up to be as thoroughly rotten as the parade of men Soozandeh shows us – con-men, cowards, misogynists, cheats, liars, hypocrites, bullies. He could hardly be any worse.
Read our interview with the film’s director Ali Soozandeh here
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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