Sunday, February 2, 2020

Sundance with Abe: Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the seventh time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can, as well as video reviews uploaded to YouTube.

Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness
Directed by Massoud Bakshi
World Cinema Dramatic Competition

There are laws in some countries that are so foreign to what Americans know that they seem unthinkable. In places ruled by religious doctrine, there is often an overlap between biblical justice and criminal policies that don’t feel like they’ve been truly modified from ancient times. This can serve to penalize those who wouldn’t be treated as criminals elsewhere or would at least be permitted a legitimate defense that they won’t get under archaic laws. One such law in Iran allows a woman who murders her husband to be spared the death penalty if his family forgives her.

Maryam (Sadaf Asgari) has been convicted and slated for execution after accidentally killing her much older husband. Because it is Yalda, the winter solstice in Iran, a popular TV program has decided that it should be a night of forgiveness, where Maryam will have the opportunity to be absolved of her crime by Mona (Behnaz Jafari), the daughter of her late husband. Viewers will be invited to text in their votes of support, and if a high enough threshold is met, the blood money owed to Mona will be paid by the program’s sponsors. Maryam and Mona are guests just like on any other show, but the stakes are much higher than just getting the answers to a few questions correct.

Writer-director Bakshi wasn’t present at the Sundance screening but sent along a video explaining his process and motivations for making this film. The fact that it was actually shot in Iran after obtaining many permits is impressive, and he said that he wasn’t sure whether real life inspired and shaped this film or if it was the other way around. This film plays out at times like an ultra-serious version of “Slumdog Millionaire,” where a young woman’s fate is being decided by another and she is constantly being told to calm down, as if she wasn’t literally fighting for her life.

The framing device works decently here in drawing attention to a phenomenon that is all too common, even if it doesn’t always play out in such a fantastical way. This film is frequently infuriating due to the characters it showcases and the manner in which they demean Maryam and act as if she should be grateful that she isn’t entirely doomed to death. Relative newcomer Asgari and popular Iranian actress Jafari deliver passionate performances, infusing an important piece of social commentary with the right amount of sincere and complicated humanity.


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