A condemned man’s wrenching wait for his own execution works like a ticking time bomb in Hamid Rahmanian’s flawed but impressive debut feature, “Day Break.” As many Iranian cineastes are cleverly managing, Rahmanian takes the basis of an actual Islamic law — permitting the family of a murder victim to personally carry out the execution of the convicted murderer — as profound material for a spare and almost unbearably tense drama. Tautness and single-minded focus will serve the pic well as buyers consider it for various upscale territories, possibly including the U.S.
Awakened on what appears to be the day of his execution in Tehran’s aging, decrepit Ghasr prison, Mansour (Hossein Yari, in a thoroughly dominating perf) looks like a dead man walking. But even as a fellow condemned man is hanged, the family of his murder victim fails to appear; he can only be executed, or spared, at the behest of the family. Their absence only prolongs his unsettled fate.
Process is guaranteed to shock Western auds unaware of internal Iranian law, raising yet again the terrible irony that what is certainly backward and repressive for Iranian citizens is dramatic fodder for Iranian storytellers. Docu vet Rahmanian’s attempt to depict Mansour’s situation as a documentary, complete with hand-held cameras and filming equipment crowding in on the execution chamber never convinces. But it’s dispensed with after the first reel, giving way to a marvelously tense focus on Mansour, his day-to-day existence in the prison (looking like the male version of the setting in “Women’s Prison”) and his thoughts back on his civilian life and the killing that sent him here in the first place. Little exposition is verbalized, making “Day Break” a fine example of a cinematic investigation of one man’s thoughts.
There’s little doubt Mansour is guilty, but the inhuman torture of postponing his day of decision again and again and again has the effect of upstaging his terrible act. Yari brilliantly humanizes this man trapped between his own sense of guilt and an existential condition that screams out for release — either the family’s pardon, or their carrying out his sentence.
With Byrom Fazli’s brown-hued lensing and Ebramim Saeedi’s sharp editing, pic effectively shifts between the sepulchral conditions of the prison and Mansour’s memories of the outside world.