The pressing issue of child slave labor is treated with some seriousness in “The 13th Bridge,” an independent Iranian film that loosely applies aspects of “Oliver Twist” to an increasingly melodramatic tale. While writer-director Farhad Gharib (also credited onscreen with his English-language name, Steven Rush) displays a keen sense of what has become classical Iranian neorealism, he allows a hokey plot line to invade the pic’s final third, lessening its chances at top-flight fests, though limited theatrical and vid distribution that targets Persian diaspora auds is viable.
Rewinding from the pic’s stark opening images of nasty guys alone with a desperate little girl in the desert, the drama intros child smugglers and slaveholders Davar (Alireza Osivand) and his drug-addicted henchman Gholam (Majid Salehi) transporting a new group of kids into a hideout in poor southern Tehran. Like Fagan overseeing his London urchins, Davar rules his roost with brutality, illustrating his capacity for murder by cutting a rooster’s throat in front of the tykes, including mute Nargess (Bita Tavakolli), nice boy Akbar (Sepehr Azadi), Davar’s own son Mehdi (Reza Sadeghi) and young girl Kowkab (Saina Shirkhodaee).
As a sign of how the film tends to stress blatant contrasts to make its point, action alternates between this miserable crew and a wealthy family on the city’s north side. Ill antique collector Mr. Dokhan (Jamshid Mashayekhi) and his post-graduate social worker daughter Parvin (Sharareh Rokham) are no happier in their own way, haunted by the tragic loss of a mother and sibling in an accident, with Dokhan suffering from multiple strokes and withdrawing into his private world of old valuables.
Akbar tries to befriend little Nargess, but loses track of her during a typical workday pestering traffic-stalled motorists for money. Davar tortures the boy and vows to find Nargess no matter the cost; in a truly Dickensian stretch, the girl ends up in the front yard of Dokhan’s home, where Parvin finds her and takes her in.
Gruffly resistant to having a sickly (and possibly disease-ridden) street urchin in his elegant home, Dokhan berates Parvin for her liberal ways and even for being away as a student in Canada so long that she’s “forgotten how things are in this country.” This and other pointed barbs will make the pic a tough sale locally, and Gharib’s narrative — while demonstrating that old, cold hearts (not only fathers, but bureaucrats) can melt with the warmth of human kindness — goes out of its way to ensure as unhappy an end as possible.
As plot eventually overrides character and observation, Gharib struggles visibly to keep “The 13th Bridge” from awkwardly tripping over story strands and speeches. Vet thesp Mashayekhi navigates his character’s softening of heart as gracefully as the script’s mechanical shifts will allow, and Rokham comes off best as a woman with a cause. Osivand could play Fagan, but this version is over-the-top.
Appropriate for a midlevel Iranian pic pitched halfway between an auteur work and a commercial product, production values are middling.