With the release of his acclaimed, Oscar-winning 2011 drama “A Separation,” Iranian director Asghar Farhadi vaulted to the top echelon of global filmmakers. With the recent death of Abbas Kiarostami and the continued self-exile of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Farhadi has become, after the officially banned Jafar Panahi, the most important director working in Iran today.
One happy result of this exposure has been the belated American theatrical release of some of Farhadi’s earlier work. “About Elly,” the film he made just before “A Separation,” played at Portland’s Living Room Theaters last year, and now his 2006 effort, “Fireworks Wednesday,” which tackles similar themes, is opening there.
In the opening scene, a young woman named Rouhi (Taraneh Alidoosti) is riding on the back of her fiancé’s motorcycle when her flowing chador gets caught in the wheel, forcing him to stop and untangle it. There’s enough symbolism in that one event, but the story doesn’t end up revolving around Rouhi and her boyfriend.
Rouhi is hired as a temporary housemaid for an upper-middle-class family, and she arrives at their high-rise apartment to find it in a state of physical disarray, including a broken window, that’s matched by the emotional combat between the husband, Morteza (Hamid Farokhnezhad), and wife, Mojdeh (Hedye Tehrani). She suspects him of cheating on her with a neighbor, Simin (Pantea Bahram), who runs a beauty salon out of her apartment.
The “Fireworks Wednesday” in question is the eve of the Persian New Year, and the film takes place over the course of that one long day. Rouhi meets the family’s other servants, offering a look at the class divisions in Iranian society. She bonds, uneasily, with Mojdeh, who enlists her help in trying to determine whether Morteza has been unfaithful. She gets her eyebrows done by Simin in preparation for her own wedding.
Both actresses are sublime. Alidoosti has worked with Farhadi repeatedly, and stars in his newest film, “The Salesman,” which premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and is scheduled to open later this year in the U.S. She’s a luminous presence, wide-eyed but savvy as she observes how the other half lives. Tehrani, also a veteran, award-winning presence in Iranian cinema, allows Mojdeh’s initially dour, haughty demeanor to gradually crack and reveal her vulnerabilities.
Farhadi’s unabashed humanism is, considering the political context, the most radical aspect of his art. Iranian films have for decades offered a ground-level view of day-to-day life in a society that continues to be demonized by many in the West. By implicitly demonstrating that the policies of a government are separate from the desires and concerns of the people living under it, movies like “Fireworks Wednesday” put cinema’s ability as “a machine that generates empathy” to full use.
It’s also an example of wonderfully invisible technique. The fluid and responsive cinematography focuses our attention on exactly the moments and characters Farhadi wants us to pay attention to, without ever feeling forced. And even scenes of potentially overreaching metaphor, such as a climactic journey through nighttime, firecracker-strewn streets, make both narrative and thematic sense.
(102 minutes, not rated, in Farsi with English subtitles; opens Friday, August 5, at Living Room Theaters) GRADE: A-