Credit: KimStim
by Michael Sicinski Featured Film Horizon Line

Terrestrial Verses — Ali Asgari & Alireza Khatami

April 26, 2024

In 2000, Swedish director Roy Andersson premiered a film entitled Songs From the Second Floor. In a series of stationary camera set-ups, the film shows us various sad or disgruntled Swedes undergoing predicaments caused by social misunderstanding, passive aggression, or sometimes just bad luck. The title refers to the “second floor,” that place situated between Heaven and Hell. The experience of daily life, Andersson suggests, is challenging enough, and we need not look to the supernatural for judgment or condemnation.

Terrestrial Verses, the new film by Iranian directors Ali Asgari (Disappearance) and Alireza Khatami (Oblivion Verses), is quite clearly influenced by Andersson, although their film is considerably more realistic and less dystopian than Songs. They seem to agree, though, that matters on the earthly plane are more than enough to grapple with. No other verses, celestial or satanic, are necessary. Comprised of nine short segments, each filmed in a single take from an unchanging camera position, Terrestrial Verses is a mosaic comprised of ordinary people whose paths have brought them face-to-face with institutional power: teachers, police, prospective employers, and assorted petty bureaucrats. We never see these authoritarian figures, but we hear them, while the camera holds the weaker party in its unflinching gaze.

It has been 45 years since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, and the abuses and repressions of the regime are well documented. But Terrestrial Verses has a slightly different aim. Asgari and Khatami show how Islamic law has become a set of pointless restrictions that serve no purpose other than to allow functionaries and martinets to lord it over ordinary Iranians. A traffic camera allows an officer to berate a driver for not wearing her hijab. A hospital clerk refuses to allow a new father to name his son “David” because it is not on an approved list of names. A company owner harasses a young woman during a job interview, and she manages to leave before he drugs her. And a worker in the driver’s license bureau demands the pleasure of staring at an applicant’s naked body, all on the pretext of inspecting his tattoos.

It would be ahistorical, as well as reductive, to take Terrestrial Verses’ dissection of life in the Islamic Republic and simply map it onto the United States. But comparison is both inevitable and instructive. Right-wing Christian nationalists want to solidify their minority view of religion into law, and to hear them describe it, this will be the way they can create a utopia where the righteous are rewarded and the heathens are punished. But even they may not realize exactly what they’re asking for. In Iran, revolutionary zeal has solidified into procedure, red tape, and a lot of regulations that clearly serve one purpose only: to remind you who has power and who does not. And while it’s easy to understand that this is a large part of the Evangelical political agenda, one suspects that many devout followers believe they are doing God’s will. Terrestrial Verses displays a cruel irony. When you institutionalize religion, eventually there’s little difference between holy scripture and a school dress code, the rituals of faith and a run-in at the DMV. A bureaucratized god always contains the seeds of its own collapse.

DIRECTOR: Ali Asgari & Alireza Khatami;  CAST: Sadaf Asgari, Gohar Kheirandish, Hossein Soleimani, Ardeshir Kazemi;  DISTRIBUTOR: KimStim;  IN THEATERS: April 26;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 17 min.