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D: Ali Soozandeh / 96m

Cast: Elmira Rafizadeh, Zhara Amir Ebrahimi, Arash Marandi, Bilal Yasar, Negar Mona Alizadeh, Morteza Tavakoli, Alireza Bayram, Hasan Ali Mete

Pari (Rafizadeh) is a wife and mother whose husband is a drug addict and in prison; she wants a divorce but he won’t agree to it. Sara (Ebrahimi) is a wife and mother-to-be who wants a job; her husband, Mohsen (Bayram), won’t allow it. Babak (Marandi) is an aspiring musician who has a one-night stand with Donya (Alizadeh) who is due to marry in a week’s time; this means she is no longer a virgin, something her fiancé is expecting her to be when they marry. Babak must arrange for Donya to have an operation to “restore” her maidenhood. Pari resorts to prostitution in order to get by; a chance encounter with a judge (Mete) sees her and her son, Elias (Yasar) set up in the same apartment block that Sara and Babak live in. Pari and Sara become friends, while  Pari finds herself helping Babak and Donya. As their lives intertwine, and secrets are revealed, each of the four must make decisions that will affect each of their futures, some of them irrevocably…

A movie that perhaps could only be presented in the rotoscoping animated format that director Ali Soozandeh has opted for, Tehran Taboo creditably and credibly explores the hypocrisy and double standards inherent in Iranian society today. Just how deep-rooted this is, is best illustrated by an early scene where Pari negotiates a sexual favour for a taxi driver. With the act and its price agreed, Pari sets to only for the taxi driver to spot his daughter walking along hand in hand with a boy. His sense of outrage is almost incandescent. That Iranian society is overwhelmingly patriarchal, and its laws designed to keep women firmly in the places prescribed for them, is nothing new, but the way in which Soozandeh and script collaborator Grit Kienzlen have constructed the interlocking stories of Pari, Sara, Babak and Donya, is to show just how far-reaching its effects can be. This is reflected in the lengths that Pari will go to to provide for herself and Elias, and the desperation that Sara feels at Mohsen’s unwillingness to agree to let her work. Likewise, Babak’s good intentions in supporting Donya lead him into unfamiiar social and political territory. They’re all trying to do what’s best, but at a continual cost to themselves.

Soozandeh is savvy enough to ensure that not everyone makes the best decisions, and though some of what transpires can be guessed at way in advance, the situations his characters find themselves in are compelling enough that the movie’s obvious lack of subtlety isn’t a hindrance (plus you could argue that with Iranian laws lacking their own subtlety, why bother?). At one point, Babak’s friend Amir (Tavakoli) says, “Saying no is more important than breathing in Tehran!”, and it’s the most persuasive observation in the whole movie, a moment of carefree discourse that sums up the oppressive nature of Iranian law as a whole. With its focus on various sexual proclivities, and moments of female nudity, this is definitely not a movie that could have been made in Tehran (or anywhere in Iran for that matter), and the rotoscoping effect adds an emotional currency that might not have been present otherwise, with expressions highlighting the characters’ feelings in ways that feel far more intriguing than usual. Soozandeh is aided immensely by a very talented cast, with Rafizadeh particularly impressive as the world-weary yet still optimistic Pari, while it should be noted that, thanks to editors Frank Geiger and Andrea Mertens, the movie has a brisk sense of immediacy about it that helps make it absorbing to watch.

Rating: 8/10 – while some of the traditional background animation feels flat and in need of development, and some of the more political elements are laid on with the proverbial trowel, there’s no denying that Tehran Taboo is a timely reminder of the undeserved restrictions imposed on a certain section of its population; thought-provoking despite some of its more soap opera-style elements, it’s a movie that also offers hope and sympathy along the way.