Misery and Hope in Today’s Iran

in 18th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival

by Fernando Salvà Grimalt

”Today” (Emrouz), Iranian filmmaker Reza Mirkarimi’s eighth feature film is deceptively small-scale: under its subtle, stripped down storytelling there’s both tragedy and hope in the future, and a moving reminder about the enduring power of empathy in a ruthless world. As in Mirkarimi’s previous efforts such as ”Under the Moonlight” (Zir-e noor-e maah, 2001) and ”As Simple as That” (Be hamin sadegi, 2008), it precisely finds the extraordinary in the everyday lives of ordinary people in order to point at the traumas and challenges of a whole nation.

”Today” tells the story of Youness (Parviz Parastui), an extremely quiet cab driver who picks up a pregnant woman in urgent need of care. The passenger, Sedigheh, is probably a victim of domestic violence and her pregnancy might even be the result of rape. She begs Youness to help, and not just by driving her: she implicitly asks him to play the role of her child’s father upon admission to the hospital. As he follows both characters over the course of 24 hours, Mirkarimi skillfully discloses his characters’ backstories with objectivity and warmth and, in the process, gradually shows us how his silent compassion and her timid dependence will end up linking their lives forever.

Soon, the shadow of suspicion unfolds around Youness. The hospital staff start believing him to be a brutal man who has abused the young woman. However, he remains quiet and impassive in the face of accusing glances, insults and even physical attacks in order to protect the woman. Why was Youness pushed into such a position in the first place? The reason is simple: to this day, extra-marital relationships are forbidden in Iran, so he has to remain silent to any questions. If he says he is the father of the child they will accuse him of causing Sedigheh’s injuries, and will ask why his name is not on her ID as her husband. If he denies any bond to her they will send her illegitimate child to the orphanage.

Still, why doesn’t Youness try to defend himself somehow? By refusing to say even a word, this character moves away from the realm of every day realism to an almost mythical level. He’s like a martyr, burdened by the guilt and wrongdoing of others, willing to sacrifice his own safety for the greater good. His silence is his ultimate act of peaceful resistance against a world poisoned by vice.

That Youness is subtly revealed to be an Iran-Iraq war veteran – he walks with a limp in his leg – is hardly a coincidence in this context. The man is perceived as a relic from a past nobody seems to care about anymore. The hospital itself, a reminder of that past – it used to be a major center for treating war vets – is now almost in ruins, its grounds and facilities in the process of being renewed. As a reminder of the old Iran, Youness can see the hypocrisies of the new Iran: he is harassed by a system that, for all its moral self-righteousness, is still a patriarchal society with no social infrastructure to support women, especially single mothers. How to rebel against that? After Sedigheh’s baby is finally born, Youness makes a drastic decision through which Mirkarimi seems to suggest that the only solution is for an individual to neglect the law and act according to personal ethical perspectives. The child then becomes the symbol of a new hope, hope that the next generation will live in a better Iran, and they won’t have to go through the same nightmare that their mothers did.

Edited by Alison Frank