Depression Steeped in Orange Juice

in 65th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Zsolt Gyenge

Depression and other psychological diseases have been the subject of many film in recent years – Lars von Trier’s “depression trilogy” for example – but the Iranian director of this award-winning title has a different approach from that which we are used to. Instead of focusing on the inner experience of the troubled soul, Hamed Rajabi shows how a depressive person acts in her social relationships, and especially how her environment deals with the situation. The construction of the whole film aims to present in a very nuanced way both the depressive subject and her surroundings, managing to create such situations, where finally we are simply unable to fully and firmly judge none of the characters. Watching the film we will not only better understand an unwell person, but we will, for the most part, see our usual reactions to depressed people in a new light.

The story begins with the main character leaving her gynaecologist’s office with the news that the baby in her womb has died and that she is due an abortion the following days. Though she is able to directly and abruptly tell what happened to the first stranger approaching her in the medical center, afterwards throughout the film she can’t express herself to her closest family members, like her mother and husband. Hamed Rajabi’s gentle camerawork and long shots follow her over the following days as she does her usual routines and as she looks for a new apartment for the supposedly growing family, until she step-by-step rebels against her own world.

It is of big importance, that very early in the film we find out that she has recently suffered a period of depression that she has been cured of. This is probably the explanation why her family is simply not able to listen to her. Be that her mother, her sister or her husband, they apparently seem to care and ask what is wrong with her, but we can feel in their tone and attitude, that they consider her bad mood just another boring phase of her depression. And this is the moment where Rajabi’s sharpest social criticism comes in. Often “eastern” societies are celebrated due to the important role of the bigger family, that is even able to take over some of the functions of the social care system. However what we see here is a family full of nieces, cousins, uncles and aunts that is completely unable to focus on one of their members.

A Minor Leap Down (Paridan az ertefa kam) is a soft-spoken, slow film, where the rhythm of the scenes, the pale colours and the minimalistic composition of the shots are constructed in a very conscious manner to reflect the subject being dealt with. The production design is of huge importance here, as most of the scenes take place either in the couple’s old apartment which has already been cleaned up for moving, or the new flat, which is still empty. These two bleak environments help the director to visually create the depressive atmosphere in such a way that we can still stay in the realistic context of the story.

The choice of long shots is a bold one, as very short jump-cuts are most often used to illustrate the tormented psychic state of the characters. In this case cinematographer Majid Gorjian uses a very mobile hand-held camera, that is able to follow everywhere the protagonist – mostly without any cuts during the scenes. And this is where we can notice the most important visual choice of the whole movie, as the camera does not allow Nahal to leave the frame for even a second. The stubborn tenacity of the image to the figure of Nahal visually re-creates in a stunning and profoundly moving way the inability of the woman to let go of the dead baby.

All this would just be a very attentive and realistic presentation of a situation of life, that makes use of outstanding performances and a very refined visual composition. But what elevates this film above most others seen at this year’s Berlinale is a Buñuelian orange-juice party scene, that is in the same time surrealistic, funny and almost creepy. By this moment Rajabi is able to distance himself and his film from the actual story and characters, and make us think of the wider context.

“A Minor Leap Down” is a debut film that shows a director with fantastic writing abilities and a very thought-out visual style. Hamed Rajabi can be compared to that strain of Iranian cinema that has been until now mostly known through the work of Asghar Farhadi – who very likely will face a very powerful new competitor in the years to come.

Edited by Neil Young