That staple of Iranian satire — the overtly tradition-minded man who finds his life turned upside down — provides the stuff of a satisfying human comedy in “Donya.” Viewers’ first impression that pic is going to be a terminally talky sit-com dissolve as stars Hediye Tehrani and Mohammad Reza Shariefienia lift this clash/love story between an older man and a younger woman to a higher level. After 2003 Fajr fest preem, pic racked up third best Iranian B.O. gross last year, with specialized Stateside run appearing likely to attract Iranian Americans who will be amused by cultural peculiarities that will leave other Yanks non-plussed.
Plump realty company owner Haji Reza Enayat (Shariefienia) reclines on pillows in his home, which he plans to tear down so he can build an apartment building in its place. Wife Gohar (Gohar Kherandish) protests his plans, but she can’t sway the stubborn Haji, whose outward appearance of bushy beard, old-fashioned garb and skull cap (which English subtitles mistakenly refer to as a yarmulke!) instantly pegs him as a conservative traditionalist.
Beautiful house-hunter Donya (Tehrani) shows up at Haji’s office protesting shoddy treatment by one of his sales colleagues. Rather than lose a customer, Haji serves as Donya’s agent.
The abode Donya wants to buy happens to be Haji’s home that he hopes to tear down. Meanwhile, he can’t be seen alone (per cultural norms) with a woman and his family members are hovering nearby. Convincing her to instead opt for a flat in another of his buildings, Haji begins falling for Donya. Soon he arranges a monthlong (pre-U.S. invasion) getaway trip for Gohar and their daughter to Karbala, Iraq, so he can get time alone with Donya.
The impression that this could be a typical Farsi sitcom is reinforced with Haji’s handsome but difficult son Mohsen (Soroush Ghoudarzi), who is trying to see Shadi (Elham Hamidi) contrary to dad’s plans to have him marry his 13-year-old cousin.
But, “Donya” gradually grows more substantial, as Farhad Tohidi’s script shifts from Archie Bunker mode into a gentler version of a Voltaire comedy. Haji and ultra-modern Donya couldn’t be more different, yet their relationship proceeds at an agreeably human pace rather than in cheap satirical strokes. Her ability to get him to change his appearance shows women’s real power over men and also suggests how easily a fundamentalist Iran can be changed to modern (or vice versa).
Haji’s traditional, religious-leaning pose turns out to be fake; only men who’ve made the pilgrimage to Mecca earn the name of “Haji,” yet this Haji has never been there. His hypocrisy comes into the open when the returning Gohar and their family catch him with Donya.
The ending, however, makes pic more complicated than expected. Helmer Manoucher Mosayeri’s full-bodied (in all ways) portrayal makes this bossy tycoon something of a teddy bear, and less of a ridiculous fool. The ever-busy Tehrani (also currently seen Stateside in Farsi-lingo “Iranian Girl”) continues to impress in a perfectly cast role that brings out her cool grace and alluring sexiness — even under all those de rigeur head coverings.
Screened print was uncommonly beat up, and audio track is similarly shoddy. Pic’s awkward studio-lensed look is hardly an asset.