Review of ‘The Persian Version’: A bumpy road out of Iran | ET REALITY


“I dreamed of being the Iranian Martin Scorsese,” confesses Leila (Layla Mohammadi), the main character of “The Persian Version,” Maryam Keshavarz’s semi-autobiographical daydream about a rising Iranian-American director and her tumultuous family life.

The film won the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Keshavarz’s second film to take that award. (Her first, the 2011 queer romance “Circumstance,” launched her career and got her expelled from Iran.)

The film begins at a costume party where Leila wears a niqab over a pink bikini, shamelessly showing her cultural contradictions. Leila, recovering from a breakup with her wife, Elena (Mia Foo), has a one-night stand with Maximillian (Tom Byrne) and becomes pregnant. For her conservative parents and her eight siblings, Leila’s impending motherhood is another of her scandalous scandals.

Throughout, Keshavarz exerts his Scorsese influences. There are disorienting time jumps, abrupt edits, and heavy narration combined with shots of Leila strutting around New York City. But Keshavarz also showcases other genres, from westerns and cheesy indies to risky slapstick. Maximillian, the would-be boyfriend, stutters adorably like he’s in a Hugh Grant romantic comedy and spends most of the movie in disguise. (He is playing the lead role in a production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at the time.)

The result is a personal film that is strangely impersonal. Tonal clutter overwhelms Keshavarz’s genuinely interesting story. On the page, it might have sounded clever for Leila to hide under a gorilla mask when he runs into his ex-wife at the supermarket. On screen, however, the joke seems contrived and distracted.

The script is more like a one-man show, a series of memories and brash, self-conscious statements. Keshavarz has underpinned his story with choruses that don’t quite blend together. His breakup with Elena is reflected in his description of the acrimony between Iran and the United States: “Like any great romance, it ended in a bitter divorce,” he says, an analogy he uses twice. His father, Ali (Bijan Daneshmand), spends the film in a hospital waiting for a heart transplant; his mother, Shireen (Niousha Noor), is considered “ruthless.”

Gradually, Keshavarz shifts her focus from Leila, essentially her fictional self, to Shireen as a way to reexamine her own mother, Azar Keshavarz, through adult eyes. The sequences starring Shireen are fantastic. The first segment, set in the early 1990s, charts her rise from uneducated immigrant housewife to real estate dynamo. The film also goes back to the late ’60s, when Shireen was a married girl in a rural area. We are amazed by her journey to empowerment, a grueling stretch of which she shows her desperate, alone and pregnant, riding a donkey. Kamand Shafieisabet, the phenomenal teen actor who plays young Shireen, still lives in Iran. She deserves global attention.

Keshavarz seems so impressed by her mother’s resilience that she only hesitantly sketches a line from that story to her own. Instead, after tossing around dozens of ideas, Keshavarz ends the film by saluting all the women fighting to live on their own terms, a struggle sweeping Iran and beyond.

The Persian version
Rated R for language and sexual references. Duration: 1 hour 47 minutes. On cinemas.

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