Iranian femme director Negar Azarbeyjani’s first feature, “Facing Mirrors,” presents two women poles apart in class and beliefs — one a naive traditionalist forced by circumstances to support her family, the other a rich pre-op transsexual running away from home. When a long taxi ride entangles their destinies, they slowly forge an unlikely friendship rooted in newfound solidarity, rather than moralistic notions of tolerance, which allows each to help the other accomplish complementary goals. This fascinating dual character study could lure gay and straight auds alike.
Randa (Ghazal Shakeri) has been driving a cab since her husband went to jail for a debt incurred by an unscrupulous partner. She picks up a fare who wants travel miles beyond the city limits, offering a substantial bonus for the trouble. Rana, a dutiful wife already way out of her comfort zone in her reluctantly assumed job as cabbie, grows increasingly uneasy about her strange passenger as the drive goes on.
Adineh (Sheyesteh Irani, the most masculine and assertive of the soccer match-crashing girls in Jafar Panahi’s “Offside”), registers desperation as cell-phone calls to a friend reveal that her father has sent the police to bring her home. She’s fleeing the country to escape an arranged marriage engineered by her father, plans to get a transgender operation, and also wants to find a more welcome post-op milieu. Sensing Rana’s unwillingness to go on, Adineh initially allays Rana’s fears by assuring her that, despite her shorn hair and baseball cap, she is indeed a woman (and therefore harmless). Later, though, she completely terrifies Rana by admitting she’s a transsexual.
The scenes of the two women inside the car, never as minimalistically staged as Abbas Kiarostami’s “Ten,” unfold almost like a culture-clash comedy, counterpointing Adineh’s casual modernity with Rana’s shocked reactions — until Rana hysterically rushes out of the cab and is injured. After Adineh takes charge of Rana’s recovery, the cabbie ventures out to the city to meet Adineh’s closed-minded relative and advocate for her newfound friend.
Helmer Azarbayjani and her co-scripter, pioneering femme producer Fereshteh Taerpour, avoid gender stereotypes in their depiction of the transsexual, aided greatly by Irani’s deeply sympathetic perf. Adineh displays a curiously androgynous concern and empathy for Rana, achieving a kind of gender synthesis in her role as caregiver. In turn, her genuine kindness impresses Rana, who winds up identifying with Adineh’s quest for acceptance. Indeed Rana’s championing of her new friend becomes an unexpected source of fearlessness, giving her back the sense of purpose she lost with her husband’s imprisonment.
Thesping is excellent in this character-driven drama, both actresses abstaining from heavy-handedness in favor of individualized interpretations.