Novice helmer-scripter Kiarash Asadizadeh employs a “La Ronde”-like structure in “Acrid,” an uneven tale of infidelity and disastrous relationships designed to reveal the broken bonds of contempo family life in Iran. Focusing on four main couplings, with several on the side, the film boasts strong performances — recognized by a joint prize at the Rome fest — and some intriguing character studies, but the desire to tie them all together strains the narrative. Meant to be femme-empowering, “Acrid” feels like a soapbox pic whose message has been heard too many times before. A minor fest item, it’s likely to see traction on streaming sites.
Hospital ward supervisor Soheila (Roya Javidniya) comes home from stressful nightshift work to find an unfamiliar indentation on her pillow. She strips the bed, the camera discreetly positioned behind her back, as she maintains a wall of silence between herself and her gynecologist hubby, Jalal (Ehsan Amani). When he does speak, it’s to ask, “Why do you tolerate me?” before begging her to leave him: “Your coldness is killing me.”
Jalal’s secretary — probably an ex-lover — quits, and Azar (Pantea Panahiha) walks into the office looking for a job. The overly nervous woman pretends to be unmarried after hearing Jalal say he won’t hire anyone with attachments, but in truth Azar has two young boys and a husband, driving instructor Khosrow (Saber Abar), who misses no opportunity to be nasty. Arguments are their default mode, with the kids crying in the middle.
Of course, Khosrow is having an affair with Simin (Shabnam Moghadami), a divorced chemistry teacher far too put together to be fooling around with this creep. She’s been offering refuge to Sara (Nawal Sharifi), whose alcoholic husband, Hamid (Siyamak Safari), regularly beats her, but Simin can’t convince the cowed woman to leave him for good.
Via the least fluid segue, the plot arrives at Simin’s student Mahsa (Mahsa Alafar), a hip young woman happily in love with Reza (Mohammad Reza Ghaffari). An extended sequence of Mahsa at the beach shows that even youth falls victim to betrayal.
All the women in “Acrid” are victims of men’s sexual wanderlust; while these ladies are bright and educated, and run the gamut of the middle class, they seem fated to fall for guys who can’t keep their eyes (and other things) on their partners. In many ways this is territory already covered far more subtly in Asghar Farhadi’s “Fireworks Wednesday,” which likewise exposed the hypocrisy and unhappiness deep in the bosom of family life, yet juggled its various characters with a more accomplished hand. Mahsa’s story in particular needs more development and shrewder integration; the way she connects back with the first characters will come as no surprise to viewers attuned to where this is going.
Fortunately, Asadizadeh has cast a topnotch team of performers who do their best to project depth and nuance into stereotypes. However, the director’s tyro status comes across in the scene with Mahsa on the beach, in which the camera stays on Alafar as she careens wordlessly from happy to distraught in a manner reminiscent of stagey thesping exercises or auditions.
Visuals are in line with solid indie fare, exhibiting confidence in the actors and occasionally an unusual engagement with space. Colors, however, are drearily monochrome, presumably to reflect the general atmosphere of low-level depression. English subtitles, not to mention the nearly incomprehensible pressbook, are far below international fest standards.