Review: ‘The Exam’

An offbeat Iranian entry set entirely in the courtyard of a senior high school where hundreds of girls wait to take their final exam, Nasser Refaie's feature debut "Exam" reads rather like a man's impression of what women want, think and talk about.

An offbeat Iranian entry set entirely in the courtyard of a senior high school where hundreds of girls wait to take their final exam, Nasser Refaie’s feature debut “Exam” reads rather like a man’s impression of what women want, think and talk about. Though film’s sociological concept may be dodgy, the writer-director is at least firmly in favor of higher education for girls. As the camera nosily weaves through a sea of black veils and hejabs, eavesdropping on the young women’s (scripted) conversations, it seems to drop the viewer into the heart of Iranian society and the problems of its female population. After winning the Special Jury Prize at the last Fajr festival, pic’s offshore bow in the Venice Critics’ Week could open doors to other outings in places where small Iranian films have achieved a handhold.

The girls begin trooping up to the gate at dawn for a test that is to start at 8 a.m., but seems never to begin. Alone or accompanied by family members, on foot, by car or scooter, they slowly gather and begin to chatter like schoolgirls everywhere.

Cliques ogle a carload of cool boys (chased away by an excited father) or torment a misfit girl they want to exclude. A bold trio flirts with a shy young soldier sent to keep order; another group flirts with a puffed-up husband who has pompously accompanied his wife.

Sheltered by a cooing group of girls, a woman breast-feeds her baby and changes a diaper. A girl’s mother picks out the prettiest schoolgirl for her son to marry, while another girl worries that she has to pass or “Dad will make me marry the first man he sees.”

Nearby, an angry husband tries to prevent his wife from taking the exam, causing bystanders to wonder whether “a woman more educated than her husband can be controlled.” Ridgemont High it’s not, but for Western auds these scenes, familiar and exotic at the same time, will have a certain entertainment value in their weirdness.

Farzad Johat’s camera is an invisible eye throughout the film, while Refaie directs his large non-pro cast of girls to bring out the individual differences behind their enveloping uniforms.

The Exam

Iran

Production

A Farabi Cinema Foundation production. (International sales: Farabi Cinema Foundation, Tehran.) Produced by Davoud Rashidi. Directed, written, edited by Nasser Refaie.

Crew

Camera (color), Farzad Jodat; production, costume designer, Refaie. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Critics' Week), Sept. 6, 2002. Running time: 80 MIN.

With

Raya Nassiri, Farzin Aghaie, Aghdas Khoshmou, Nahid Refaie, Ali Hosseini, Nahid Sarvmeyli.
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