By Ali Moosavi.
The majority of films occupying the cinema screens in Iran belong to either of two genres: social dramas and comedies. The Iran-Czech Republic joint production, Son – Mother (Pesar – Madar, 2019) which premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, at first appears to be a typical social drama. Leila (Raha Khodayari), is a widow who has a menial job on a factory floor. She provides for her infant daughter and her 12-year-old son, Amir (Mahan Nasiri). Kazem (Reza Behboudi), a driver for one of the factory minibuses, and himself a widower, is in love with Leila and has given her a marriage proposal. There is, however, a catch in his proposal. He has a daughter around the same age as Amir and feels that having a young boy and girl, who are not blood brother and sister, under the same roof is against their religious and cultural beliefs and customs and will give rise to damaging speculation by the locals. His solution? For Leila to put Amir somewhere with someone for “two or three years” until Kazem can marry off his daughter. This condition is naturally unacceptable to Leila. Things however don’t turn out in her favor. The factory is going through a hard time, which is not helped by its workers going on strike. Leila, however, is so desperate to keep her job that she refuses to join the strikers. She is therefore marked as a scab by other workers who conspire against her to lose her job. Leila is left with no alternative other than to accept Kazem’s proposal. A kind old lady friend (Maryam Boubani) volunteers to look after Amir by placing him in a special boarding school for deaf and dumb boys, where she works.
The film is divided into two segments, separated by two titles. The first part is titled Son. Though the son, Amir only has a few small scenes in this part, his fate is at the centre of the story in this section. The second part is titled Mother. Though the mother is absent in this part, her absence reinforces the importance of her role in keeping her small family together. It is with this part that the film is elevated from an above-average social drama to what could turn out to be a classic neo-realist film. Amir has to pretend that he is deaf and dumb in order to maintain his place at the school. He has to face this challenge whilst suffering from the intensely psychological trauma of being in a strange environment, away from his mother and little sister.
Every single person and every single incident in the film rings true and is entirely believable. There is not a false note to be found even in the smallest detail presented on the screen. We can empathize with every character in the film; from Leila, Kazem and Amir to those working in the school and the factory. We understand all their motives because they are all entirely believable people and the situations they face justify their actions. There are no good and bad people here, no black and white, just utterly believable everyday folks trying to make a living in far from perfect conditions. The filmmakers have not tried to sugar coat anything. There is a scene where a pedophile gives a lift to Amir and tries to be “too friendly” with him. It is a disturbing scene but such people do exist and to pretend otherwise would bring falseness into the story. Son-Mother reminds one of the classic Italian neorealist films. In fact, there is a nod to that movement in this film. In one scene Kazem is recounting an incident where his bicycle was stolen and he went looking for the thief.
All the actors give highly accomplished performances, from the young Mahan Nisiri as Amir to the veteran actress Maryam Boubani. Raha Khodyari, as Leila, shines in her first leading role. But special mention must go to the experienced theatre actor Reza Behboudi. He has a difficult job of making the audience sympathize and empathize with Kazem in spite of his totally condemnable actions in breaking up a small family. Behboudi passes with flying colours.
So far, I have not named the film’s director and screen writer. This was on purpose as I believe the film must be judged solely on its merit and not on anything to do with the background of its filmmakers. However, undoubtedly any accolades or prizes that it receives, for which it is fully deserving, will in some quarters be connected to the filmmakers’ background. The film’s female director, Mahnaz Mohammadi is an experienced and award winning documentary film maker. She is also an activist for women’s rights and social justice in her native country, Iran. Because of her activities, she has been arrested and jailed and prevented from making films. In 2011 she was invited to attend the Cannes Film Festival where the film Ephemeral Marriage (Reza Serkanian, 2011), in which she starred was being shown. However, she was prevented by the Iranian authorities to attend and instead she sent a letter to the festival. In this letter, which was read by Costa Gavras, she stated “I am a woman and a film maker, two reasons sufficient to be treated like a criminal in this country”. Son – Mother is her fiction feature film debut. She has utilized her documentary making experience to the full to make a very realistic movie.
The screenplay of Son – Mother is by the renowned and award winning Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof, who also has a history of being arrested and banned from film making. Recently he was sentenced to one year in prison because of ‘propaganda against the state’, relating to his latest film A Man of Integrity (Lerd, 2017). In an interview with Film International (Vol. 16, No.2) Rasoulof stated “In my view, Iranian society has been affected by a cultural narcissism that is not ready to accept its true image. That is why, when they want to attack me, they say in their news items that I have ‘contempt for Iranians’. Why should I have contempt for Iranians? Am I not an Iranian myself?” His screenplay for this film is among the best that he has ever written.
It is hoped that any attention on this film would be derived from its quality and not from the other factors associated with its filmmakers.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).