The itch for change felt by three women living in a poor Tehran neighborhood is palpably expressed in Saman Moghadam’s finely nuanced “Café Setareh.” The rare film equally influenced by Quentin Tarantino, Jean Renoir and William Saroyan, this time-winding triptych has a deep humanist sense and a feel for working-class folk whiling away the hours. Pic also reminds that, in a country theoretically oppressive of women’s full expression, Iranian cinema is second to none as a delivery vehicle for rich dramas about women. Solid local B.O. last August may be matched Stateside, if a wider aud can be tapped.
After a striking title shot lensed through a goldfish aquarium, opening section, “Fariba,” reps the most conventional of the three parts. Cafe Setareh’s owner, Fariba (Afsaneh Baygan), barely holds the biz together as her boozing, unemployed husband Fereidoon (Shahrokh Foroutanian) sponges off her.
While his pal Ebi (Pejman Bazeghi) plans to marry Saloomeh (Haniyeh Tavasoli), Khosro (Hamed Behdad), trying to secure a visa for Turkey to find decent work, grows outraged at Fereidoon’s abuse of Fariba and kills Fereidoon in a street fight. Ebi helps rush Khosro out of the country, as life among the cafe denizens goes on.
Only in the second section, “Saloomeh,” and the sweet-and-sour finale, “Moluk,” do further complications peek through the narrative surface. Saloomeh takes care of her blind, highly literate father (Masoud Raygan), and far from finding Ebi to be the Prince Charming he first appears to be, discovers a mean, controlling streak that makes her re-evaluate her immediate future.
This growing dissatisfaction is stoked by Saloomeh’s g.f. (Negar Forouxandeh), the poster gal for every Westerner’s dream of the progressive young Iranian. She’d rather be living it up in Dubai than live one second more in Iran, and the lure of escaping her neighborhood and country proves too powerful for Saloomeh to resist.
Roya Teimourian’s touching perf as Moluk distinguishes triptych’s final frame, as she plays a lonely, middle-aged landlady (the second of pic’s two female businesswomen amidst a group of male layabouts). Taking a cue from Saloomeh’s father, she begins to pine for Khosro, leading to a gentle but sad confusion of emotional pushes and pulls.
Moghadam (coming off international hit “Maxx”) cleverly extends plot strands from the first two sections into the third while advancing Fariba’s quiet assertion of control of her cafe in the face of a grubby businessman. A parting shot at the fancy ways of the rich in Tehran’s northern ‘burbs seals “Cafe Setareh” as a dramatic poem of the city’s beaten-down south, beautifully and realistically captured by lenser Bahram Badakhshani.
Pic reps a striking third stream in contempo Iranian movie production, between the poles of overripe melodrama and highly aesthetic auteurist work, with an authentic sense of have and have-nots and a traditional taste for actor-centric drama. It’s not the first such film, but “Cafe Setareh” stands as one of the best examples of the trend. Production elements are first-class, topped by an elegant Amir Tavasoli score.