The second feature from Iranian director Ida Panahandeh, Israfil is a quiet exploration of the repercussions of the cultural oppression dealt with much more histrionically in Leila. Unlike Leila, where the thoughts of the protagonists were spelt out to us, Panahandeh lets us watch and feel and imagine.
Mahi (Hediyeh Tehrani) is grieving the loss of her teenage son and only child, killed in a car accident. At his funeral a man, Beyrouz (Pejman Bazeghi), arrives to pay his respects and causes an explosion of outrage from Mahi’s Uncle Abbas (Ali Omrani). Slowly the story of Mahi’s past is pieced together, told by her mother, uncle, Beyrouz’s sister and gossiped about by the students and staff at the school where she works.
Twenty years before she and Beyrouz had been in love, engaged to be married, until Uncle Abbas drove them apart. That she had a boyfriend before the man she was subsequently forced to marry is enough to cause lasting social shame. Mahi is almost paralysed by grief and buffeted by the words and emotions of all around her. It is as if the re-connection with Beyrouz is more than she can comprehend as she returns again and again to her son’s mist shrouded hilltop grave.
We meet Sara (Hoda Zeinolabedin), Beyrouz’s younger girlfriend and, unexpectedly, the narrative follows her path back to her family home in Tehran. Her erratic mother, Taji (beautifully portrayed by Merida Zare’i), needs someone to keep her safe, a role that Sara has always taken on. For her Beyrouz is a chance to escape the burdens of her life.
Panahandeh is a skilful storyteller. She takes her time and works with actors who know how to hold a scene. Much is said in the silences and in the colours and locations she uses. I wondered at the meaning of the title and a post-film google showed me that Israfil is one of the four angels of Islamic lore, responsible for sounding the horn to signal the resurrection.
For all three characters, they must make a choice that is not an easy one but will change their lives. Familial obligation can be a crushing weight but to escape it leaves one adrift in the world. Each character represents different aspects of modern Iran perhaps; one locked in the grief of what is gone, one desperate to escape a familiar reality that is an embarrassing burden, one culturally bereft in a new world.
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