A woman with a lost dog, a little girl performing a TikTok dance in a chador and an exhausted director trying to get his film project off the ground are just three of the characters that populate the omnibus of single-take vignettes in writer- “Earth Verses by directors Alireza Khatami and Ali Asgari. Combined, these nine stories give off a powerful cumulative effect as we see the petty bureaucracies and daily roadblocks that push paper to working class life unfold and demean these people. Cultural, religious, and institutional constraints wear down ordinary citizens of Tehran in stories that may have no beginning, middle, or end, but nonetheless come to a well-drawn, if unnerving and ambiguous, conclusion that would seem dystopian if events were not so ordinary.
The only Iranian entry in the 2023 Cannes Official Selection, ‘Terrestrial Verses’ opens with a panoramic overview of Tehran’s cityscape. Softly at first and then overwhelmingly, the surge and crash of urban noise, and finally screams, sirens and panic sounds, fill the scene before a transition to black that introduces us to the film’s first character. A new father (Bahram Ark) is told that the name he and his wife have chosen for their baby, David, is too Western, and unseen lawmen say the government won’t approve of their choice. Most of the vignettes are established in a talking-head documentary interview style, with the interviewers (in the form of police or government pencil pushers) placed behind the camera and never seen.
In the next segment, an eight-year-old girl (Arghavan Sabani) chafes against the traditional garments an off-camera saleswoman pushes on her, wears a Mickey Mouse T-shirt under her religious habit while dancing to pop music on headphones. The most powerful centerpiece of ‘Terrestrial Verses’ finds a man named Farbod (Hossein Soleimani) trying to get a driver’s license, but chafing at the collection of tattoos on his body, the self-inked scribbles of what he claims is a poem of Rumi which turns out to concern binge drinking.
Another cartoon resonates with the recent controversies surrounding Iranian filmmakers like Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, who are imprisoned and banned from leaving the country (although Panahi was recently freed) due to their outspoken anti-establishment political views. Here, a frustrated director Ali (Farzin Mohades) tries to land a shooting deal with a production partner after widespread investor churn over decades. But he is told that his script is too critical of Iranian-Islamic patriarchy and more representative of what his partner advocates for Western hegemony. Ali is asked to tear pages from his script and include more stories from the Koran to present a more positive portrayal of Islamic rule.
Cinematographer Adib Sobhani frames each section — another harrowing sequence includes a female student called into the principal’s office after being seen on a motorcycle with a boy — in the Academy’s 4:3 ratio, a literal embodiment of claustrophobia that each of these characters feels. The camera never moves, zooms or jerks to make us feel suspended in each moment and aligned with the frustrations of the characters. Because these are mere snapshots of life, some are more characters than others, with several citizens set up as sketchier stand-ins for larger issues. Near the end of the film, an elderly woman in a hijab begs a policeman to release her missing dog, which the precinct may or may not be in possession of. Who would want to use a Chihuahua as a police dog, she asks? She is sent away empty handed and destroyed by the slow trickle of questions.
Famous Iranian actor Ardeshir Kazemi gets a silent cameo in the film’s final shot as a “100-year-old man,” according to press reports, literally bent over by the shadow of totalitarianism as the city darkens outside, the shot it widens to a widescreen aspect ratio, and those sounds we hear in the opening sequence demonstrate an eerie, apocalyptic preamble to a city outside the man’s office that’s finally burning.
Iranian directors Alireza Khatami and Ali Asgari teamed up after their first feature films, “Verses of Oblivion” and “Disappearance” respectively, were selected for the Venice Film Festival in 2017. In the press notes they described the process of their films like the characters in “Waiting for Godot” – and citizens sketching in “Earth Verses” are similarly caught in a game of waiting to nowhere under the ease of totalitarian rule. This film is as muted in its approach to character and drama as its color palette, but the result is devastating.
“Terrestrial Verses” premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.