Inversion (Cert PG)
1 Disc DVD (Distributor: New Wave Films) Running Time: 81 minutes approx.
When the legendary Tammy Wynette sang the immortal lyric “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman” I doubt she had the women of Iran in mind, but films like Behnam Behzadi’s Inversion do add a certain poignant and desperate potency to these words. Behzadi also raises a little ecological awareness here concerning Tehran’s increasing problem with air pollution.
Elderly matriarch Mahin (Shirin Yazdanbakhsh) suffers from a chronic pulmonary disease that keeps her house ridden as the local air is too debilitating for her lungs. Mahin’s stubbornly ventures outside without her oxygen tank, resulting in her collapsing and being taken to hospital. The doctor tells Mahin’s family that moving her out of Tehran to somewhere with cleaner air will sustain her life.
Because she is single, the family decide that Niloofar (Sahar Dowlatshahi) should be the one to move away with Mahin to look after her – except that they don’t discuss it with Niloofar first. With her own sewing business and a potential new relationship Niloofar isn’t prepared to just uproot herself without being asked, creating a rift within the family who believe Niloofar is being selfish.
And so, within the first ten minutes of this film, the family hierarchy is exposed to be as oppressive for women as their social status under the patriarchal Iranian society. It’s not a new topic for a film and sadly won’t be one that will quietly ebb away in Iranian cinema, but as long as it exists, then filmmakers like Behzadi will have something to say about it.
Sitting somewhere between the focused dramas of Asghar Farhadi and the naked exposé narrative of Jafar Panahi, Inversion boldly confronts the treatment of women in Iran but does so through a set-up that is universal in its foundation, thus will have a greater resonance for western audiences in discussing the moral implications of Niloofar’s apparent familial duty.
With her own business that employs a small group of hard working women, Niloofar is probably as independent as a woman can get in Iran, being her own boss at work and at home. She may live with her mother in a shared apartment and cares for her, but Mahin doesn’t begrudge her daughter her own life. There are tentative steps towards dating construction boss Soheil (Alireza Aghakhani) when time allows, otherwise Niloofar is a free bird.
Mahin’s sudden health issues changes all of this, when bossy older brother Farhad (Ali Mosaffa) blames Niloofar for being negligent, which their sister Homa (Roya Javidnia) appears to concur. Being a wife and mother herself means Homa has her hands full, yet tellingly her teenage daughter Saba (Setareh Hosseini) spends more time with Niloofar than at home.
Farhad, also married with children, has his own clothing store but is experiencing problems with supplies from abroad which have put him in debt with his investors. Therefore Niloofar is the automatic choice to move out of the city with Mahin and as a single woman Niloofar is considered a failure in life thus her opinion doesn’t count; if she does complain, she is being disloyal and self-centred.
Such emotional manipulation isn’t exclusive to Middle Eastern families but it gets worse for Nilhoofar when Farhad, to pay off his debts, decides with Homa – but NOT Nilhoofar – to give Nilhoofar’s workshop to one of the debtors, since Nilhoofar is moving away. Having told her employees they would not lose their jobs Nilhoofar is furious at this development, once again apoplectic about the lack of discussion with her first.
Whilst we all can appreciate that looking after a sick parent should be a priority for any family, the sheer arrogant disrespect and selfishness shown by Farhad and Homa’s dogmatic fait accompli sophistry should make the blood boil of any viewer regardless of geographic location. Niloofar tries to negotiate shared responsibility but her siblings insist their lives are too important to disrupt and systematically set out to crush Niloofar into acquiescing.
Running a little under 82 minutes, Behzadi only gets to tell us half the story, ending on a ambiguous note that has a wistful air of hope about it whilst suggesting the fight is far from over for Niloofar. This might seem like a cop-out but considering the frustrations engender but the drama so far, taking it further to its logical conclusion would prove too draining for the audience, as well as compromising the consistent high quality of this provocative work.
Once the bullying begins in earnest this film becomes a quietly unsettling psychological drama, the simple classical melody of Nilhoofar’s phone ring tone acting as an omen for further trouble coming her way. But Nilhoofar isn’t one for breaking and even with her inherent sense of filial piety, her independence is of equal value to her and the stifling claustrophobia of archaic attitudes simply fuel her resolve.
The ecological aspect of the plot might be secondary to the main family drama but it is fascinating to learn that this global concern has reached Iran too. The film’s title suggestions a reference to a “thermal inversion” – when the air above ground becomes warmer than the air below it – yet is more metaphoric of Nilhoofar’s “inversion” of the male controlled society to suit herself.
Iranian cinema has created a stream of strong female characters in recent years which should continue to be a trend. Nilhoofar is a modern Iranian female protagonist; in fact, niece Saba looks up to her and is her sole supporter, a positive sign for the adoption of progressive attitudes in the next generation of Iranian women. Sahar Dowlatshahi plays Nilhoofar with grace, strength and dignity – less a totem, more a beacon of hope.
Don’t be deterred by Inversion’s brisk runtime, Behzadi uses every second wisely in relating this compelling and astutely observed tale of continuing female oppression in the Middle East, that will infuriate the right people but for the wrong reasons. Often stark, frequently vexing but undeniably hard hitting.
Rating – ****
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