Failures of human connection in contempo Iranian society are wittily examined in “Please Do Not Disturb.” An impressively sustained triptych of comic fables that unspool over the course of a single day in Tehran, documaker Mohsen Abdolvahab’s fiction-feature debut captures the more mundane daily manifestations of injustice and paranoia with clear-sighted intelligence, humor and a certain wry optimism. Pic is well into its fest run, though the renewed focus on Iranian cinema, in light of the government suppression of Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, could boost an item that trips modestly and winningly in those filmmakers’ socially conscious footsteps.
The film begins with a shot of a closed door, behind which two voices can be heard loudly arguing — an image that not only provides a nice visual correlative to the title, but also sets up a narrative motif in this portrait of an often shut-off society. Fed up with her abusive husband, a woman (Baran Kosari) storms out to report her mistreatment to the authorities; her sheepishly apologetic hubby follows her, pleading with her not to jeopardize his image as a popular TV gameshow host.
A near-altercation with a taxi driver flows into the second story, centered on a clergyman (Afshin Hashemi) who finds he’s been robbed of his cell phone, wallet and, most crucially, documents he needs to perform his duties as a notary. Amusingly, he gets the thief on the phone, initiating a lengthy, earnest discussion of ethics, regularly distracted by the mullah’s clientele, mostly consisting of couples bent on marrying or divorcing for the wrong reasons.
An elderly woman (Shirin Yazdanbakhsh) whom the clergyman passes in the hall figures prominently in the film’s third and most entertaining yarn, set in the apartment she shares with her senile spouse. When a young handyman shows up to fix their TV, the innately suspicious, strong-willed woman refuses to let him in, forcing him to do his job through the bars of the gate that blocks his entry; complicating matters is the presence of the repairman’s baby daughter.
Abdolvahab’s screenplay offers casual, glancing insights into the specific culture it’s depicting — the prevalence of religious discourse in everyday conversation, or the generally held notion that a little wife beating is no big deal. But specific politics remain understated in a picture that assuredly taps into the underlying anxieties of life in any bustling modern city. “Please Do Not Disturb” evokes a place where people feel variously fatigued, thwarted, alienated and at times endangered, yet its gently comic tone reflects a grounded, common-sense wisdom that allows the viewer to detect a measure of hope for the characters onscreen, all sharply limned by an expert cast.
Stories all unfold at a nice clip, and the progression from one set of protagonists to the next is so fluid that a brief, conclusive wrap-up feels unnecessarily tacked-on. Tech credits are accomplished on a low budget, and d.p. Mohammad Ahmadi maneuvers his handheld camera around the actors with ease and skill; shots of the first married couple arguing in the car could be an affectionate nod to the lengthy driving sequences so beloved by Abbas Kiarostami.