A drama about a young theater group in crisis that might have been a play itself, if it weren’t for writer-director Behnam Behzadi and d.p. Amin Jafari’s constantly in-motion camera, “Bending the Rules” is carried along by a certain high-intensity bravado until it bogs down with too much argumentative talk in the last lap. Like many current Iranian films, it’s essentially about the generation gap, although the insularity of the theatrical milieu makes it feel less universal than some similar recent efforts. Results likely won’t translate into strong sales prospects overseas, but the film’s initially bracing quality and Behzadi’s significant promise as a rising Iranian helmer should propel it far along the fest circuit.
A long opening shot (the film’s only stationary one) has a young woman discussing suicidal thoughts and actions with strangers. But it turns out this is just a scene rehearsal for a play being directed by Amir (Ashkan Khatibi), whose seven actors and crew members have been preparing for months in order to perform at an international arts festival in a few days. In order to leave the country for the fest, most of these non-pro college students involved have lied to parents who don’t approve of their all-consuming interest in the stage, and wouldn’t condone an unchaperoned trip outside the country. Lead thesp Shahrzad (Neda Jebraeili) alone has told the truth, to her widowed businessman father (Amir Jafari) — and now discovers that he’s apparently taken possession of her passport to prevent her leaving.
Cornered at his office, he snaps, “I don’t like theater. It’s not a job. It has no social status.” But his reasons for barring her departure run deeper than that prejudice, or even a single parent’s over-protectiveness; apparently Shahrzad has shown past signs of serious instability (including an actual suicide attempt), and as a result he’s reluctant to let her follow her latest whims. With her troupe members tagging along, the father-daughter imbroglio escalates until there’s a physical altercation, the passport is “stolen” back, and the older man finally threatens to derail the long-planned trip for everyone if Shahrzad isn’t returned to him. Caught between their collective ambitions and loyalty to a fellow player, the other thespians begin fighting among themselves — the point at which pic loses some of its hitherto considerable momentum.
Behzadi’s evenhanded approach refuses to lay easy blame on any party. The father may seem bullying, but his only offspring also does appear a tad unstable, and the others belie their collective good intentions with bouts of useless belligerence and self-interest. Tacit here is the conflict between a conservative older generation that has learned that caution is always the best path, and youths raised on social media and other globalizing factors who see no reason why they shouldn’t travel and experiment freely when they can.
Performances are strong, though some characters (notably the women other than Shahrzad) feel underdefined. While the pic takes place at only a handful of locations (and primarily in the group’s ramshackle rehearsal space), there’s nothing stagy about the way the restless, fluid handheld camera constantly prowls a step or two behind pacing actors, which lends a feel of live-wire spontaneity to what might have otherwise seemed overly yakkety material. Also inventive is the soundtrack design by credited composer Martin Shamoonpour, who, as the onscreen company’s sound geek, is constantly fiddling with different live/recorded audio f/x that in turn add another unpredictable aesthetic element to the film itself. Other tech/design contributions are expert.