“Yalda: A Night of Forgiveness” is a riveting and thoroughly engrossing satire of Iranian culture and the work-arounds built into a theocracy, ways of ignoring calls for reform and the shedding of “tradition.”
Tehran filmmaker Massoud Bakhshi’s Sundance-honored second feature is an international production whose puzzles begin with the alien culture he immerses us in and ends with “Wait, Iran let him get away with that?”
“Yalda” is about patriarchy, “temporary marriage,” an “apology culture” that’s become embedded in Sharia law and the legal system and the entrenched “eye for an eye” and “blood money” side of that justice system.
And it’s about a (fictional) TV show, “Joy of Forgiveness,” where the condemned can get legally-binding “forgiveness” via a live on-air apology to the injured party or their family.
The film is set in real time as that show’s producer (Babak Karimi), crew and host (Arman Darvish) frantically prep for and then broadcast their Yalda (a Winter’s Solstice holiday) episode.
There are many moving parts that have to fall into place, a lot of people to placate and masters to serve on this show, which has a musical guest, an in-show lottery, a text-in reality TV poll element and its dramatic main event, a live, Jerry Springer-style (but well-mannered) confrontation.
Producer Ayat (Karimi) has an in-control-room censor from the State, a woman who objects to how downbeat and depressing this holiday episode is. Ayat has to get a condemned woman (Sadaf Asgari), the night’s star, to the studio from prison. He’s scrambling to ensure that the woman whom that condemned “star” wronged (Behnaz Jafari), someone who may not want to accept an apology or even participate, shows up. Tonight’s special guest, an Iranian film star, has to be accommodated for her appearance where she’ll read a poem appropriate to the holiday and “forgiveness.”
But Maryam (Asgari) is young, desperate and hellbent on telling her “truth” to the live audience and the woman who will be sitting opposite her. She denies the crime, that she “murdered” Mona’s father, even though she was convicted and sentenced to the gallows. Her manic mother arranged this TV pardon, but Maryam demands “Let me speak for MYSELF!”
Ayat tries to talk her down (in Persian with English subtitles). But dammit, woman, this is TELEVISION.
“You can ruin your life if you want, but I won’t let you ruin my show.”
When Mona (Jafari) shows up, Ayat won’t let Maryam meet her and re-plead her case. He’s keeping this confrontation on set and fresh for his audience.
It’s just that with live TV, with a near-hysterical condemned woman facing a stone-faced, unforgiving daughter, things are sure to go wrong. And this story, unfolding in 89 tightrope-walking minutes, reveals a complicated familial connection, hidden agendas and the cruelty of the patriarchal power imbalance between Mona’s wealthy father and the much-younger woman he (and Maryam’s mother) talked into a “temporary marriage.”
When Westerners get worked-up over the traditions and sexist loopholes of the Muslim world and Sharia law, things like that — a short term “arrangement” for a man who doesn’t want to commit to a woman, to create offspring with her or be charged with soliciting prostitution — are what they point to.
Bakhshi, whose feature debut was”A Respectable Family,” bends reality just enough to make this satire sting. He takes an outsider-looking-in peek at how Iranian justice looks to the outside world and serves up a movie that plays as “Network” meets “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Ayat’s slick, modern Western-style show, with its woman director and gender-mixed crew, goes off the rails during the confrontation and “show more commercials” isn’t enough of a stall. “Let’s have another song.”
“We don’t have PERMITS for that,” his censor barks. Wait. What?
The on-camera pressure on both women — Maryam feels showing clips of her trial and the crime being reenacted are “humiliating,” Mona’s stubbornness faces commercial-break arm-twisting — mounts as the plot twists on this secret or that veiled threat.
“Yalda” exposes a messy system where the weakest elements of a theocratic patriarchy are vulnerable to a sexist unbalancing of the scales of justice and subject to public shaming. But damn, it makes for fascinating television and a movie that will pull you in, first scene to its harrowing finale.
MPA Rating: unrated, smoking, profanity
Cast: Sadaf Asgari, Behnaz Jafari, Babak Karimi, Arman Darvish
Credits: Scripted and directed by Massoud Bakhshi. A Film Movement release
Running time: 1:29