Socio-political Sparkle in Cannes

in Cannes 2024

by Chih-Yuan Liang

A courageous story, set in modern-day Iran, which deals with the conflict between tradition and progress, depicted in a very powerful and imaginative way.

The jury’s work this year has been a challenge until the very last day of screenings. After having attended the official screening of The Seed of the Sacred Fig, we realized that we had finally found our FIPRESCI winner. The film received the highest critical reception of all the films in competition.

This Iranian film possesses incredible power, both in terms of aesthetics and political action. The Seed of the Sacred Fig was made by Mohammad Rasoulof, who managed to flee his country at the beginning of May, and was present in Cannes. He illegally left his country after being sentenced to five years in prison for “collusion against national security”. The great political charge of Rasoulof’s film, shot out of sight of the Iranian authorities and then post-produced abroad, is immediately exposed. The film plunges us into a Tehran on the verge of implosion. The revolt of the entire youth intensifies, brutally repressed by the theocratic regime.

The Seed of the Sacred Fig tells the story of a virile married man with two daughters. Iman has just been promoted to investigative judge at the revolutionary court in Tehran, when a huge movement of popular protests begins to shake the country. Overwhelmed by the scale of events, he confronts the absurdity of a system and its injustices, but decides to comply. At home, his two daughters, Rezvan and Sana, students, strongly support the movement, while his wife, Najmeh, tries to preserve the status quo. Paranoia grips Iman when his service weapon mysteriously disappears; he suspects his wife and daughters, imposing draconian measures that severely affect family relationships.

The film’s title The Seed of the Sacred Fig is a metaphor: the wild fig tree is a plant which first grows on trees, roots towards the ground. Then the fig tree wraps itself around its host like a boa constrictor and strangles it in order to stand up freely. This metaphor starts the story that takes place within a lower middle-class family in Tehran.

To tell this trajectory, the film uses two opposing narrative strategies. The first part of about two hours takes place mainly behind closed doors and is focused on words and images of wildly filmed videos that circulated on social networks. The father is absent, because his work remains hidden from his daughters. This is to the displeasure of the mother, who sides with her husband; she double-talks, wanting to spare both camps. She does not succeed in calming the rage rising in everyone, especially towards the father who is increasingly agitated by the unexplained disappearance of his service weapon. A salient sequence sums up his confusion and the generational gap. He stops at traffic lights, next to another car. At its wheel, he sees a young woman, not only without a veil, but with very short hair, wearing a cap and piercing. Iman seems to be boiling inside; he rolls down his window and is about to say something, but changes his mind. His gloomy gaze announces a shift.

The other part of The Seed of the Sacred Fig takes the unexpected direction of a genuine thriller, as relentless as it is rich in metaphors, with galloping paranoia, car chases, kidnapping and a distressing hide-and-seek sequence in a labyrinthine village in ruins. The finale is impressive, guided by the younger daughter, a sovereign and inventive rebel, symbol of a youth in which the filmmaker has faith. She is the one, together with the movement launched by women, who will free the country from its oppressive regime. Victory is close, without a doubt… The fluidity of the staging and the use of close-ups are purposeful; speaking images, a close-up on a bloody and hideously injured face reveals an unexpected beauty, the image of the accidental death of the father – also of great beauty – makes us forget this is a corpse. The film constantly surprises us.

The images of the demonstrations and their crushing, filmed on a phone, cause mutations in the film: authentic documents transform fiction as they break up the apparent harmony of the family, between the father and the daughters, by interfering more and more in their relationship, right to the point of no return.

Mohammad Rasoulof courageously launches a whole series of attacks: these wildly filmed videos which circulated on social networks, reveal massive gatherings of women; female drivers extricated from vehicles; systematic beatings; a country on the verge of implosion. Throughout the film and thanks to the intelligence of the direction, the viewer experiences an insurrectional atmosphere through videos in the two girls’ phones, and we will remember the powerful slogans: “Down with theocracy! Down with the dictator! Woman, life, freedom!”, echoing the resounding assassination of Mahsa Amini, a student arrested and beaten to death in September 2022 for “wearing inappropriate clothing”. It is extremely rare for a film to be in tune with such burning and important issues of the time, by integrating explosive documents into the very heart of fiction.

Chih-Yuan Liang
Edited by Birgit Beumers