Producers: Maryam Keshavarz, Anne Carey, Ben Howe, Luca Borghese, Peter Block and Cory Neal Director: Maryam Keshavarz Screenplay: Maryam Keshavarz Cast: Layla Mohammadi, Niousha Noor, Kamand Shafieisabet, Bella Warda, Chiara Stella, Bijan Daneshmand, Shervin Alenabi, Tom Byrne, Shervin Alenabi, Arty Froushan, Samuel Tehrani, Jerry Habibi, Reza Hamid, Andrew Malik, Parmida Vand, Ash Goldeh, Parsa Kaffash, Sachli Gholamalizad and Mia Foo Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
This is an extremely busy movie, shifting locales, times and tones hectically for nearly two hours to unravel the details of a fraught mother-daughter relationship. “The Persian Version” is also heavy with characters and incident, making for a rather unwieldy whole. You can admire writer-director Maryam Keshavarz’s ambition, but the effect is like watching a juggler trying to keep too many balls in the air at once.
The film, said to be semi-autobiographical (to what extent is not completely clear), is narrated at great length by Leila (Layla Mohammadi), an aspiring filmmaker who—in the present, the 2000s, as it vaguely says in an early caption—and by others, including the younger version of her (Chiara Stella), is estranged from her imperious, hard-driving mother Shireen (Niousha Noor).
Things begin with Leila walking to a Halloween party in a burkini—the top of her body covered by half a colorful burka, with a pink bikini underneath. There she not only wins a costume prize but has sex with Maximilian Balthazar (Tom Byrne), a guy she presumes is a drag queen, though he’s actually a straight actor who just happens to be starring in “Hedwig and the Angry Itch” on Broadway.
The encounter will leave her pregnant, which surprises her large, boisterous family—eight brothers, along with her mother and father Ali (Bijan Daneshmand), grandmother Mamanjoon (Bella Warda), and an assortment of relatives–because Leila is a lesbian just broken up with her girlfriend Elena (Mia Foo), who’s quickly moved on. (We see Leila donning a gorilla mask and frightening a child trying to keep Elena and her new GF from seeing her in a store—one of the movie’s slapstick sequences that doesn’t come off.)
But there’s more. Ali, a doctor, suffered a serious heart attack years ago and is on the transplant list. And reminiscing with Leila (while offering her unsolicited advice), Mamanjoon indicates that the decision of Ali and Shireen to emigrate from Iran to the United States resulted from a scandal they were fleeing at home.
All of this is related in the first ten minutes or so, as are Leila’s bittersweet memories of how she always felt like an outsider, caught between her Iranian and American identities. They’re illustrated in flashbacks, the most exuberant being a sequence in which she smuggles tapes of western music into Iran on a visit with her mother, introducing the first of several dance routines as she leads a crowd of neighbors in an impromptu (but well choreographed) ensemble to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
That’s a lot of stuff jammed together as an introduction, and the movie proceeds to follow through the various threads outlined there, as well as others, like Shireen’s decision, after her husband’s incapacitation, to try to fix her family’s fragile financial condition by becoming a real estate agent (a street advertisement serving as her inspiration). So we get a long excursus about how she earns her GED to allow her to take the real estate exam, which she aces despite having an accident that results in a broken neck. It’s during this time that she angers Leila by demanding that the girl step up to take over the household chores while she studies and recuperates.
Meanwhile Leila introduces Max to her family, who treat the fellow, who wants to be part of the child’s life, as an oddity. They often talk about him in Persian, so he won’t understand what they’re saying, and when he asks how to say something in the language himself, tell him an embarrassing phrase, which he then repeats to laughter. It’s basically a cruel joke at his expense, but it’s presented as harmless fun, though if the situation were reversed, the victims would probably be outraged. The gag, to be honest, smacks of bad Borscht Belt humor; indeed, much of the narration in the opening two-thirds of the script fits that characterization—it’s almost like a frantically illustrated old-time stand-up routine of ethnic “growing up” recollections.
Then in the last act the movie turns very serious, as Mamanjoon relates to Leila the details of the scandal that compelled young Ali (played in flashback by Shervin Alenabi) and Shireen (Kamand Shafieisabet) to leave Iran—a scandal in which young Mamanjoon (Sachli Gholamalizad) and other members of the family also had parts to play. This long flashback sequence, in which Shafieisabet is particularly compelling, eventually transitions back to the present, with Ali’s medical condition and Leila’s pregnancy playing out against the background of an Iranian wedding celebration (more ensemble dancing).
There are many good elements here, but the film is so cluttered that they tend to get lost in the shuffle. Still, the performances are mostly excellent, with Noor and Shafieisabet ensuring that though Leila is telling the story, it’s really about Shireen. (Of course, the idea is that it will become the subject of the screenplay Leila, or Keshavarz, is writing.) The film’s look—First Yunluel’s production design, Burcu Yamak’s costumes—is impressive for a modestly-budgeted picture, and though Andre Jager’s jerky cinematography and the patchy editing by Abolfazl Talooni and Joanne Yarrow won’t be to everyone’s taste, they presumably reflect Keshavarz’s vision. Rostam Batmanglij’s score (with pop numbers added) and Mertcan Agirtas’ choreography do their job decently.
The opening caption indicating that this is “sort of” a true story is cagey, of course, but “The Persian Version” is clearly a love letter to the writer-director’s family, though one that’s emotionally complicated and narratively chaotic.