An apocalyptic vision of Iran, Abolfazl Saffary’s “From Tehran to Heaven” proves as visually compelling as it is shockingly unexpected. Unfolding more like a fever dream than a linear narrative, the film follows a pregnant woman’s desperate search for her husband within a surreally disorganized city. Rape, beatings and dark hints of biological weaponry supply a life-and-death context for her desperation, while an overwhelming sense of disorientation affects both protagonist and viewer. Like “Disorder,” Huang Weikai’s documentary compilation of Chinese metropolitan meltdowns, “Heaven” is starting out as a strictly underground affair, but further festival and museum screenings could change that.
Saffary’s heroine, Ghazal (well-known Iranian actress Mahnaz Afshar), returns from a sonogram to find her husband Farhad missing and her apartment ransacked. Kidnapped, raped and beaten (offscreen), she is dumped, bruised and bleeding, on the side of a road, threatened with further violence if she does not find Farhad, who apparently stole some potentially incriminating documents from the biochemical lab where he worked.
The police seem to find nothing untoward in Ghazal’s situation; indeed, Tehranis seem to take everything in stride. Elevators in upscale apartment houses have ceased to work, while anonymous heaps of belongings on staircases cause stumbles but no surprise. Traffic routinely detours around fistfights or momentarily halts when a bride in full white regalia leaps out of a car and pelts down the roadway, hotly pursued by the rest of the wedding party.
In some ways, “From Tehran to Heaven” reps a feminine Iranian version of “D.O.A.” Farhad (who is never seen) was apparently fatally infected in his heroic attempt to sabotage his firm’s biochemical experimentation, and Ghazal is doubtlessly following the trail of a dead man from the get-go. Following mysterious phone calls from Farhad’s paranoid co-worker, a cryptic message from Farhad saying he has gone to Heaven, and directions from her now totally senile father-in-law, Ghazal winds up slogging on foot through a wind-tossed desert to a little house in the middle of nowhere, where an old man with a dog reluctantly takes her in.
None of these oddball happenings would carry much weight without the startling impact of Saffary’s unique, nightmarishly evocative imagery, the power of which far surpasses the film’s narrative continuity. Nor would it work without the sheer physicality of Afshar’s Herculean performance as Ghazal doggedly makes her way through the disintegrating city, countering the film’s vision of a dystopian society on its last legs with a woman’s biological drive to continue the species.