Cannes 2023 Review: “Terrestrial Verses” Opens Up the Room to Reverberate

Dusk turns to dawn in the opening minutes of “Terrestrial Verses,” observing the skyline of Tehran as the sounds of the city rise up into heavens above, a tailored cacophony of honking in the streets, squawking birds and eventually a wave of protests. As the introductory chapter of Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatami’s moving collection of vignettes, it not only sets up the tales of the city to come, but the way in which the mundane inevitably is transformed into the political when any strides towards modernity in Iran are constantly pulled down to earth by the religious and patriarchal strictures of past centuries that have as strong a foundation as any building.

“I’m not a political person, I’m just doing my job,” a local bureaucrat at one point tells Sadaf (Sadaf Asgari), one of the 10 people Asgari and Khatami train their camera on in the course of 77 minutes in what end up being largely futile attempts to engage in a variety of transactions that should be uneventful yet turn out to be anything but. In Sadaf’s case, a traffic violation has brought the young woman into an office where, like the other tentacles of the powers that be throughout “Terrestrial Verses,” an unseen inquisitor can be heard from the other side of the camera asking increasingly confrontational questions. The infraction itself seems suspect when it concerns whether or not Sadaf was wearing a hijab in her car, but while an argument is made when even if it’s against the law of the land to let her hair down, she raises the absurdity of having little to show when it’s already shorn close to the skull and one would have to strain to see her inside of the vehicle’s tinted window, the intrigue doesn’t lie in an outcome that never appears to be in question, but rather Asgari and Khatami’s keen ear for the soft hegemony exercised by apparatchiks of a corrupt system that can’t conceive of alternatives to their traditions, even when the rules in place stopped aligning with reality long ago.

Whether sitting in on the renewal of a driver’s license or the fraught acquisition of a filming permit, the filmmakers understand that as much power as there is in witnessing the confusion of the characters in these Kafkaesque scenarios, the stationary position of the camera also emphasizes the impenetrable wall that they face, with different voices heard off-screen but might as well be anonymous when indistinguishable from one another in their attitude towards the public. Some situations may be more obvious than others, particularly in regards to misogyny – a job interview gradually reveals a male employer to look at female applicants less as professionals than sexual objects and a young girl that just wants to dance is weighed down with a burkha and other absurdly burdensome layers of clothing en route to her obligation ceremony – but when “Terrestrial Verses” begins with debate over what to name a child — having a couple’s preferred “David” is too western to the liking of local officials — no part of being a citizen in such a confining culture from birth to death doesn’t at least hold some surprise in how authority rears its ugly head. Yet Asgari and Khatami find beauty in resistance, not only among characters who push back in what ways they can, but in challenging a narrative that has repeated itself for itself for generations themselves by taking an alternate perspective, turning the sight of the skies into what looks like the start of a groundswell.

“Terrestrial Verses” will screen at the Cannes Film Festival as part of Un Certain Regard on May 24th at 9 am at the Debussy Theatre and Cineum Imax, May 25th at 9:30 am at Arcades 3, 4:15 pm at Cineum Aurore and 5 pm at Licorne.

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