Navid Mahmoudi's Drowning in Holy Water; courtesy of AFI Silver

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Institutional failure is a significant theme of 2022’s Annual Festival of Films from Iran. Now in its 26th year, the festival, co-presented by the National Museum of Asian Art and the AFI Silver Theatre, returns to virtual and IRL audiences on Jan. 14. This year’s months-long event showcases films that feature various downtrodden characters who persist against hopelessness. Many films depict poverty, but even one about a middle class family implies governments and social safety nets offer few solutions. Real help for ordinary people, several films suggest, comes from family and an informal bribery network. But the filmmakers have little interest in dwelling on misery for its own sake, and instead capture how slivers of ordinary life somehow make each indignity and strained situation more tolerable.

There are formal similarities among this year’s films. It will be recognizable to anyone who keeps up with Academy Award-winner Asghar Farhadi, whose latest film, A Hero, has a nationwide run before it is available to stream on Amazon Prime. Modern Iranian cinema relies on realism, shooting real homes and cityscapes that eschew any sense of glamor. Actors have natural dialogue and performances, rarely relying on histrionics. The cumulative suggestion is that these people have learned from a lifetime of experience that vulgar displays of emotion rarely accomplish anything. With one notable exception, it might be easy to mistake these films for documentaries because the writers and directors imagine scenarios that blend into the reality of daily life. Even when one film creates supernatural forces beyond the character’s control, it is through the prism of typical hardships.

The Skin follows Araz (Javad Ghamati), a down on his luck merchant. He sells leather goods, but no one has been in his store in months, so he spends his time bickering with his mother. The bigger problem is that he cannot be with the woman he loves—his ex—because she’s fallen for another man. Unbeknownst to Araz, his mother complicates matters through supernatural means: She is a sorceress who has put a curse on Araz’s would-be lover, preventing them from ever reuniting. Written and directed by twin brothers Bahman and Bahram Ark, The Skin believes in sorcery and demons. Parts of the film unfold like a folk horror tale (as the film’s description notes, the brothers rely on traditional Persian folklore and music to tell their tale), with Araz struggling to satisfy a jinn who terrorizes his community. However, the formal constraints are at odds with the horror genre. There are a handful of creepy images, including bizarre creatures who lurk in the shadows, yet most of the film involves bickering among characters who disagree about how or if these forces should be placated. A convoluted plot, one that doubles back on itself, prevents Araz’s struggle from having any real sense of urgency.

If horror does not lend itself to modern Iranian cinema, black comedy is one area where genre and limited production values can thrive. The Son follows a character who will be instantly recognizable to Western audiences: Soheil Ghannadan plays Hamid, a loser with no job, who dotes on his frail mother in their swanky condo. Hamid is a mess of contradictions. He wants recognition for his devotion to his parent, but resents that his attention has led to a life without much future. Of course, Hamid has little self-awareness about this, so the film’s comedy comes from his willingness to exaggerate and lie whenever it is convenient. The plot springs into action shortly after Hamid’s mother dies. He does not trust the authorities with her body, so he hides her in his refrigerator (director Noushin Meraji wisely avoids showing us this image). Now that he is truly unmoored, Hamid uses her death as a lazy attempt to elicit sympathy from strangers. He asks for favors from neighbors, and in a bizarre deadpan scene, he guilelessly invites a sex worker up to his room, too hapless to understand the services she provides.

Hamid is a Judd Apatow-like hero, oafish and pathetic, except there is a deeper pain that only becomes clear when his more successful older brother arrives home from the United States. His brother left Iran for a supposedly better life and his ongoing frustration with Hamid crystallizes their differences. Institutional failure is part of what separates the two: Hamid’s brother immediately wants to involve the authorities, a subtle hint at his Americanization, while Hamid is naturally more skeptical. They resolve their differences in a lengthy scene, one where common experience smooths over impasses that have developed for decades. The Son is not touching in a traditional way, although it acknowledges the universal struggle and pain among siblings in an empathetic, albeit bizarre, way.

Whereas The Skin and The Son use genre to explore modern life in Iran, the humanist drama Drowning in Holy Water is the best synthesis of form and subject. It follows Hamed (Matin Heydarnia), a young man from Afghanistan who plans to immigrate to Germany via a path from Iran to Turkey. There he meets Rona (Sadaf Asgari); the two connect and promise to find each other once they make it to Europe. Director Navid Mahmoudi films their naiveté in a moving way. 

During his pit stop in Iran, Hamid stays with Sohrab (Ali Shadman), a shrewd young man who earnestly cares for his traumatized sister Setareh (Neda Jebraeili). Their informal arrangement is meant to only last a couple days, except there is a complication: Europe is turning away Afghan immigrants, so Hamid’s best shot at relocating is converting to Christianity. As Hamid, a proud Muslim, debates whether the compromise is worth it, he discovers Rona’s been abducted by the family she yearns to escape. The film becomes a race against time, with Hamid facing impossible choices.

Mahmoudi and his young cast ably create a heartbreaking situation, and add desperate procedural detail through sheer resourcefulness. As Sohrab, Shadman is a compelling presence, a fundamentally decent person who speaks realistically about what Hamid must undertake. Hamid cannot be much older than 20, and while his earnest nature hurts him in ways he cannot see, the film ultimately implies that these qualities might help him in the long run. Drowning in Holy Water depicts the inevitable consequence of institutional failure. By the time Hamid and Sohrab resort to shocking violence, the film sharpens into an observant account of immigration struggles that wisely avoids direct critique. It is the best film from this year’s festival because it is too wise—or maybe resigned—about the plight of young immigrants to challenge the system head on.

As the festival’s press release states, “Iranian filmmakers continue to create culturally vital and innovative films despite daunting challenges.” The event will showcase the country’s latest cinematic works as well as selected classics, including two filmmaker retrospectives celebrating Shahram Mokri and Farhadi.

The Annual Festival of Films from Iran, featuring full-length and short films as well as live events, runs from Jan. 14 through April 27. Starting Jan. 14, The Freer Galley of Art will screen selected films online via the museum’s virtual platform. Free.

In-person film screenings start on Feb. 4 at AFI Silver, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring.  $1–$13. Tickets available on the festival’s website and at AFI.com/Silver.