Bucolic Verses

in 14th Luxembourg City Film Festival

by Jean-Pierre Thilges

You have to be either a hardcore cinephile or a bit crazy if an Iranian tragi-comedy reminds you of Woody Allen (refined sense of humour), Monty Python (grotesque humour), Jonathan Glazer (evil “seen” and heard off camera) as well as Tom & Jerry cartoons (where you only see the feet of the human protagonists). 

It could well be that the international jury as well as the Fipresci Jury at the 14th edition of LuxFilmFest were also a tad crazy when they awarded – a rare occurrence at any festival – their respective prizes to Terrestrial Verses (Chroniques de Téhéran/Ayeh haye zamini), co-directed by Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatami. Then again, it could be that the members of both juries were entranced by a light, accessible, hard-hitting and (at 77 minutes) delightfully short film of major political importance in a competition selection where the longest film, which clocked in at 215 minutes, was shown to the jurors just before these bucolic verses from Iran.

A film with nine characters (and a dog), Terrestrial Verses tells of the lives of Iranian men and women faced with the rampant bureaucracy and mind-boggling red tape of an oppressive regime which controls every aspect of its citizens’ daily lives with an iron fist. A man cannot freely choose the name of his newborn son. A mother is being lectured about what her daughter should wear on her first day at school.  A young woman is desperately trying to challenge a traffic violation ticket.  A man must literally undress before being delivered his driving license. A woman is humiliated during a job interview. A man is flabbergasted while answering a job offer. When applying for a shooting permit for his film, a director sees his screenplay “go up in flames”. A desperate woman is searching for her missing dog in a police station.

Nine banal occurrences that happen every day in every office, every police station, every administration, and every shop around the world, nine commonplace situations which certainly do not deserve a film, be it only 77 minutes long.  Asgari and Khatami disagree as they take shot after shot at the Mullah regime, by using an ingenious subterfuge that allowed their film to come in under the radar of Iranian censors: Terrestrial Verses is – in fact and maybe officially too – a film that groups nine short subjects whose actors (one character per episode) who knew nothing but their own dialogue and were never given “the big picture” of the entire screenplay – this made them less vulnerable in case of eventual repression by the regime.

Just as in Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, the film’s “evil” i.e. censorship, oppression, interference, prohibition, abuse of authority, stupidity, arrogance, absurdity, and even rampant machismo are laid bare off camera, via an invisible interlocutor whose off-screen voice delivers all these horrors and ridiculous “skits” with an ice cold stoicism that leaves one speechless. Needless to say that the film unmasks and ridicules the Iranian regime via the filmmaker’s stratagem, their fierce sense of humour echoes the finely chiseled dialogue of Woody Allen or the ferociously grotesque attacks on religion by the Monty Pythons. Even the off-screen-characters in the Tom and Jerry cartoons are not far away – we hear them talk and hear as they call poor Tom to order but…we only see their slippers.

With their Terrestrial Verses, Asgari and Khatami hilariously and courageously thumb their nose at their country’s regime by laughing at and making us chuckle about the day-to-day horrors perpetrated off-screen and as far away as possible from the cameras. Fortunately, even Charlie Chaplin and Ernst Lubitsch are not far away.    

Jean-Pierre Thilges
Edited by Amber Wilkinson