A mundane tragedy plays out as a very, very slow-burn thriller in “A Very Ordinary Citizen,” an oblique drama from Iranian indie helmer Majid Barzegar. Much like Barzegar’s previous effort, “Parviz,” the story revolves around a protagonist who has settled into a limited routine, and who starts to commit sociopathic acts when change enters his life. Rigorously shot in long takes, eschewing standard narrative beats and withholding key narrative information, “Citizen” is constructed like a puzzle, but one that doesn’t quite satisfy even when complete. Nevertheless, the reputation of co-writer Jafar Panahi (“Taxi”) should attract further fest dates.
The tale unfolds in an autumnal Tehran. Eightysomething Mr. Safari (Souren Mnatsakanian) is a slow-moving retiree whose mental faculties are on the decline. He barely answers questions, let alone speaks. He lives alone; his wife’s fate is unclear. His son, Parviz, immigrated to Canada and cannot return to Iran, but he has tapped gossipy upstairs neighbor Mrs. Parvin (Nahid Hadadi) to keep an eye on Dad.
When Safari stars to ignore his ringing phone, Parviz sends over Sara (Shadi Karamroudi), a lively young woman from a travel agency. She’s meant to organize a passport for Safari so that he can come to Canada for care, where she will escort him. Her vitality stands in marked contrast to Safari’s lethargy, and her beautiful voice is like water to his parched soul. Before long, Sara’s sweet-natured attentiveness sparks a stalker-like obsession in Safari. He even gets Parvin to darken his snow-white hair, vainly hoping to appear more attractive to the young woman, and begins to haunt her workplace, causing trouble with her co-workers.
As Safari continues to spiral off the deep end, his everyday routine of going to the bakery — where he buys two pieces of fresh-baked sangak bread, one of which he delivers to a nearby home — is finally revealed as something other than what it initially seemed. Now Safari, who at first evoked audience sympathy for his infirmity and loneliness, begins to appear more than a little scary.
Helmer Barzegar intentionally keeps the tempo slow and even; with the exception of a startling finale, he deliberately avoids dramatic moments, letting them take place offscreen. This sort of filmmaking is unmistakably for rarefied audiences, even in the festival world. Given that the film rides on Safari’s shoulders, it would have been more interesting to watch if Mnatsakanian were a less impassive actor. His performance doesn’t really prepare audiences for the extremes to which he takes his obsession, which certainly require calculation. Moreover, in a crucial scene in Parvin’s apartment, he’s shown moving and talking with no trouble at all — indeed, he even does a little dance with his cane, reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin in “Monsieur Verdoux.” (Apparently, that’s our hint.)
Since Iranian art films are generally replete with metaphors for something to do with Iranian society, it’s interesting to speculate on the director’s intent here, particularly in light of the final scene. In the press notes, Barzegar coyly claims that the film is “a portrayal of the stressful and mundane portions of urban life in Tehran and an examination of the destructive aspects of human nature, which form part of my society.”
Overall, the tech package reps a step up from Barzegar’s previous work. After the blues, grays and browns that colored the unwholesome world of “Parviz,” talented lenser Amin Jafari makes the most of the golden color of fallen leaves against the dusty concrete. Costume designer Leila Naghdi Pari contrasts the chilly blues sported by Safari with the vibrant reds worn by Sara. Music is all diegetic within a sophisticated sound design.