After the international success of Asghar Farhadi’s socio-familial, “realist” dramas, there were a litany of Iranian films that tried to copy the winning formula of his work. It’s certainly a trendy schematic, but one that already feels worn-out. Unfortunately, Farnoosh Samadi’s debut feature, 180° Rule, is yet another in this lineage, one which adopts the narrative mechanisms and recycles the themes, tone, and mood of About Elly and A Separation in an admittedly simpler, low-key approach — there are fewer twists and less self-conscious complexity — and filters its story through a distinctly feminine lens. The plot centers around an Iranian middle-class couple, Sara and Hamed, who, without any obvious problem in their marriage, seem to have become cold and distant with each other. When Sara decides to attend a wedding (in a northern province of the country) with her young daughter against her husband’s wishes, it’s not hard to predict how this act will lead to tragedy, and how the wedding celebrations will shortly turn into mourning. It’s at this point that Farhadi’s influence is most keenly felt: recurring motifs of culpability and grief abound, truths are concealed, and his familiar fascination with the concept of being both guilty and innocent at the same moment is invoked (the film’s titles refers to the notion of shared judgment, from different perspectives). All of this allows Samadi to toss her characters into the turmoil of personal suffering and domestic lawsuits, including a minor subplot about a student who attempts suicide after an unwanted pregnancy which functions as a sort-of mirror of Sara’s struggles.
The problem with 180° Rule, then, is that it proves so difficult to say much about Samadi’s directorial instincts. It’s a perhaps unfairly harsh criticism to lodge against a debut work, but the film is too content to work from an outmoded template, never aspiring to more than rotely going about its script and keeping everything in plain sight for the audience. Samad’s film lacks any expressive layers, and its few attempts at composing interesting mise-en-scène are executed with a superficial exoticism (such as in the wedding scene). Put differently, very little here feels authentic. But if cribbing Farhadi is the desired stratagem here, then attempting to emulate the director’s ability to coax deeply humanist performances from his casts would help matters; instead, in Samadi’s film, this is where things get even worse. The performances are frustratingly inert: there is no chemistry developed between these one-dimensional characters, with the leads content to alternate between faintly mumbling dialogue and indulging in actorly histrionics, frequently building scenes around crying, quarreling, screaming, and physical fighting. But even this falls flat, and instead heavy make-up is leaned on as a means to express the state of a character’s misery and melancholy. Indeed, Samadi exhibits this instinct for shallow sentimentality throughout most of the film, nowhere more egregious than when Sara’s young daughter sings an old, nostalgic Persian song immediately before a tragic accident. Samad’s film was programmed to TIFF’s Discovery section, and there’s a deep irony in that: 180° Rule is a film that does nothing if not try to reinvent the wheel.
Published as part of TIFF 2020 — Dispatch 1.