By Ali Moosavi.
Asgari has delivered his most accomplished socially aware thriller.”
Ali Asgari made his name in cinema by making short films. These films were often co-written or co-directed with Farnoosh Samadi and won many awards at various festivals. These successes did not go unnoticed by the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and both of them were invited to join the Academy in 2020. Asgari made his feature film debut with Disappearance (2017) and Samadi with 180 Degree Rule (2020). Both of them were deeply interested in the Italian Neorealist Cinema and studied filmmaking in Italy. Their films combine social realism with thriller elements.
Asgari’s latest film Until Tomorrow played in the Panorama section at the 2022 Berlin Film Festival. In this film Asgari has expanded his short film The Baby (2014), which he told me was inspired by a photograph that he and Samadi had come across. Asgari has co-written the screenplay for this film with Alireza Khatami, whose Oblivion Verses (2017) was one of the great feature film debuts of the last decade. Until Tomorrow stars the director’s niece Sadaf Asgari, whose film debut was in Ali Asgari’s Disappearance, and has since notched up a number of highly impressive performances, including Samadi’s 180 Degree Rule and most memorably in Massoud Bakhshi’s Yalda, A Night For Forgiveness (2019).
The concept of Until Tomorrow is very simple: Fereshteh (Sadaf Asgari) needs to find someone to babysit her two-month-old daughter for one night. While this may not seem a big deal to western audiences, it is in Iran if your child is out of wedlock and you are a single mother. The baby’s father wanted her to abort it and has no interest in marriage. Worst of all, Fereshteh has kept it a secret from her parents, who are on their way to Tehran from another city to go with Fereshteh and visit a relative who is in hospital recovering from an accident. Fereshteh lives in a block of apartments very similar to the council estates in Britain. Therefore her first port of call are the neighbours whom she visits to see if they can store all the baby stuff for one night only. The neighbours are not as helpful as one would expect and are very nosey and inquisitive.
The far bigger hurdle though is to find a babysitter. Her best friend Atefeh (Ghazal Shojaei) has come to help her in this task. She stays at university dorms and is unable to mind the baby. They try a female friend of Atefeh, who is a lawyer. However she has just been taken away by security agents. Fereshteh asks, “but isn’t she a lawyer?” to which Atefeh responds, “That’s exactly why she was arrested”, clearly alluding to a prominent female human rights lawyer who has been incarcerated for some time now. Another friend is happy to help but his wife refuses to accept such a potentially risky responsibility. Meanwhile the clock is ticking as Fereshteh’s parents get nearer to Tehran. While we follow Fereshteh and Atefeh’s odyssey in the streets of Tehran, Asgari and Khatami have skillfully presented the various social, moral and legal dilemmas facing women in Iran. Fereshteh offers to pay for a hotel room for Atefeh to spend the night with the baby there but hotels in Iran are not permitted to have single women as guests without the written consent of their husband, specially if they have a baby with them. Fereshteh cannot even get a birth certificate for her baby because that too requires her husband’s consent. Atefeh suggests in bitter irony to Fereshteh to go to the parliament and ask them to change the laws. This ironic tone is also used to point to the issue of brain drain where an increasing number of young qualified Iranians emigrate abroad every year. The two girls talk about emigrating and one suggests going somewhere where there are no Iranians and the other says that even in Alaska you will find Iranians!
A visit to the baby’s young father, who works in his father’s aquarium shop, and who also has kept this secret from his father, temporarily awakens some paternal feelings in him but bears no fruit, though a scene where he gives a ride om his motorcycle to Fereshteh, Atefeh, the baby and a small fish that they girls have bought from his shop is both hair raising and funny. As Fereshteh becomes more desperate, a respectable looking middle-aged hospital manager (played by Asgari regular Babak Karimi) offers to arrange for one of the nurses to look after the baby, but only if Fereshteh shows him “a little tenderness” in his locked office. Will Fereshteh in her depths of despair sink so low? Will she find a babysitter with no immoral expectations? Will she make it in time to greet her parents? Will she tell them the truth?
One of the film’s producers is the famed Iranian actress and director Niki Karimi, whom I had previously interviewed for Film International (12.3, 2014). The odyssey of the two girls in Until Tomorrow reminded me of Karimi’s debut as a director, One Night (2005) in which a young girl had to spend a night in the streets of Tehran so that her divorced mother could entertain her latest lover. The girl in that film also comes into contact with a number of different characters who represented various classes and moral values in Iran. Here Asgari and Khatami ratchet up the tension created by the girls’ predicament their race against time and trying to overcome all the hurdles that the society has put in front of them, in a manner not too dissimilar to that created by Cristian Mungiu in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007).
Until Tomorrow rests heavily on the performance of Sadaf Asgari and she truly delivers. Ali Asgari’s camera is focused on her throughout the movie and follows her very closely. Any event that doesn’t involve her physical presence is dealt off camera. In the first scene of the movie we see Fereshteh multi-tasking at home, she is working out, doing the laundry, cooking, placing orders for the printing shop for whom she is buyer, feeding the baby, talking on the phone. She is a bundle of energy. As the story progresses, all the ensuing worry and despair drains her energy. These changes are depicted in her facial expressions with an outstanding degree of skill by Sadaf Asgari.
Ali Asgari told me that he grew up with six older sisters and this has no doubt engrained in him a deep understanding of the issues facing women in Iran. He also told me that in his films he wants to tackle subjects that examine contemporary issues and at the same time have sufficient tension and narrative drive in the story to carry the audience till the end and even make them think about those issues depicted after the film is finished. With Until Tomorrow, Asgari has achieved all these objectives and delivered his most accomplished socially aware thriller.
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 Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).