Iran helmer-scribe Bahram Tavakoli’s “Here Without Me,” an unlikely adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” begins faithfully enough but subtly shifts the play’s coloration as it goes, the magnificently thesped characters less strident, the tone less confrontational, and the context more like a fever dream as wondrously ambiguous fantasy increasingly informs the characters’ denial of their circumstances. Pic is considerably enlivened by the astonishing perf of Montreal fest actress award winner Fatemeh Motamed-Arya, who infuses her role of the anxious mother with a humorously sympathetic mixture of caring, strength and motormouth micromanaging. Wider arthouse distribution, especially in Europe, seems likely.
Of all the play’s characters, only the timid crippled daughter, here named Yalda (Negar Javaherian), whose disability has driven her to take refuge in her collection of glass animals, remains essentially unchanged.
Yalda harbors a secret attraction to her brother Eshan’s best friend Reza (Parsa Piroozfar), who shows patience and a gruff kindness to the daydreaming, disgruntled Eshan (Saber Abar). Farideh (Motamed-Arya) invites Reza over as an unsuspecting suitor for Yalda’s hand. But unlike Williams’ mysterious Gentleman Caller in “Glass Menagerie,” Reza is often seen in Eshan’s company at their jobs and very much proves a character in his own right. The subsequent illusions spun around him, furthermore, far exceed anything in Williams’ play.
Eshan, whose voiceover introduces the film, writes poetry and desperately dreams of leaving Iran. Sleeping away his days at a dreary warehouse gig (the camera eerily tracking past row after row of steel shelves), he spends every spare moment haunting cinemas (the red of the plush seats contrasting violently with his workplace’s drab hues), watching and rewatching old films. A hacking cold and fever give him the red-rimmed eyes of a mad visionary.
Motamed-Arya’s Farideh is probably the most altered of Williams’ characters. Though virtually all the affects of the play’s original Amanda are represented, they are here toned down or rendered affectionately amusing. Thus the mother’s wistful dwelling on her own, perhaps apocryphal suitors in the original is here mainly alluded to in Eshan’s gently mocking parroting of Farideh. And Amanda’s helplessness has vanished altogether, with Iranian survivalist Farideh holding down two food-processing factory jobs to help support her family.
Indeed, Farideh functions as the only character who fully connects the claustrophobic confines of the house with present-day Iran. Her serenely masterful dealings with merchants and creditors are matched by her self-sacrificial willingness to slave over steaming assembly-line beans and tearfully peel mountains of onions in the face of escalating factory layoffs.
Tavakoli rarely seeks to disguise the spatially constricted, dialogue-heavy staginess of his source. But he uses Eshan’s escapes into the fantasy of film to fashion a new, at first seemingly happy ending for the Williams play, his denouement deftly moving from astonishment to joyfulness to slow-dawning despair.