“Yalda. A Night for Forgiveness” – Oh what a night! [MOVIE REVIEW]
by Neely Swanson
“Yalda. A Night for Forgiveness,” masterfully written and directed by Massoud Bakhshi, is beyond imagination. Focusing on the aspect of Sharia law that legally sanctions “an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth,” Bakhshi brings us onto the set of “Joy of Forgiveness,” a reality show broadcast live that brings together a condemned murderer and the daughter of the man she killed. As can happen privately, the aggrieved party may “forgive” the perpetrator after which there is a payment of “blood money,” a sum determined by the importance of the victim.
Jaw-dropping, this kind of program actually exists in Iran and has ruled the television ratings for ten years. Using the reality show as a framework, Bakhshi has upped the stakes by introducing additional elements of complexity. The evening that Maryam, the seemingly homely accused murderer, and Mona, the beautiful and imposing daughter of the wealthy victim, are to meet coincides with the celebration of Yalda, a celebration of the beginning of winter when families gather to tell stories and recite poems; it is the longest night of the year, figuratively and literally. Ayat, the producer, has cleverly staged the forgiveness ritual for maximum viewership, despite the misgivings of the show’s behind-the-scenes staff, most of whom are women, who believe that the two issues, forgiveness and cultural celebrations, are at cross purposes and will, instead, lower the ratings.
Ayat prevails, but not without stumbling along the way. He has certainly recognized a good story. Maryam, a very young (22) woman who entered into a “temporary” marriage with Nasser Zia, a much older man (65). Maryam’s family had been inextricably tied to Nasser for many years and she had first met him as a 6-year-old. Her father had been his chauffeur and when he died, Nasser provided assistance to the family. Showing an interest, Nasser relentlessly pursued Maryam and proposed a temporary marriage, one that she tried to resist for quite a number of reasons. Temporary marriage is a concept foreign to the West but has existed in Islam culture for over a thousand years. Such a marriage has a defined expiration date and offers very little to the wife, depending on the negotiated conditions. One unyielding condition to this marriage was that she would not become pregnant. Children were out of the question. But almost immediately, Maryam was with child and refused to get an abortion. In the ensuing argument, she pushed her husband. He fell, hitting his head and rather than call for help, Maryam fled the scene, allowing the still breathing Nasser to die. Maryam was sentenced to death for his murder. Ironically, months later, the baby was stillborn.
Tonight on “Joy of Forgiveness,” hosted by the very handsome and unctuous Omid, a miserable and very nervous Maryam will face Nasser’s daughter and her former friend, Mona. Mona, who clearly is in no mood to forgive, arrives very late necessitating Omid to cut to a popular singer and extra commercials. These introductory passages are, to say the least, tonally different from what the main event will be.
Maryam, however, is less interested in Mona’s forgiveness than in her desire to tell her side of the story. Her story is complicated and involves Mona’s complicity as well. Although she had very little to begin with, Maryam has lost everything. She is repeatedly admonished by Ayat and others. By speaking out, she is endangering her one chance at receiving a pardon. Mona, as conflicted as she is about the whole process, something that is very undignified for her class, is motivated by the “blood money.” Obviously, the figure she would be seeking is beyond the ability of Maryam’s family to pay. The hook, here, is that, like other interactive reality programs, the viewers vote for or against the pardon. There are two tiers based on the number of viewers who text in favor of forgiveness. At tier one, Mona will receive half of the settled blood money sum from the show’s sponsors; at tier two, she will receive the entire amount.
Ancillary characters contribute to the fraught atmosphere, foremost among them, Maryam’s mother. Seemingly benign, wishing only for her daughter’s freedom, her motives are, at best, suspect. There is a particularly intricate twist towards the end that will complicate any future Maryam may have.
Bakhshi has written a story that explores more than just the concept of forgiveness. He has laid bare the class and socioeconomic disparities that yield different results based on who you are, and especially with who you are not. As a director, he is aided by an extraordinary cast led by Sadaf Asgari as Maryam and Behnaz Jafari as Mona. Poor, needy, perplexed and anxious, Asgari communicates all of this in little motions — her darting eyes, her incessant scratching at imaginary irritations. Behnaz’s Mona is a study in unsympathetic imperiousness. Her hooded eyes, full lips, and sculpted cheekbones tell the tale of a woman whose every need has always been met. The supporting cast is masterful as well, from the obsequious TV host Omid played by Arman Darvish; Ayat played by Babak Karmi, the confident producer focused on what will yield the results he’s seeking; and Maryam’s mother played by Fereshteh Sadre Orafaee, whose very posture communicates guilt and deception.
“Yalda” is a unique and powerful film. Even before the actual showdown on screen occurs, you will sense a tightening of your stomach. Tension is an immediate aftereffect of the train wreck you sense is about to begin. That there is an actual television show like “Joy of Forgiveness,” boggles the mind.