The conflict between tradition and Westernization that preoccupies many Iranian films is also the principal theme of “Falling Leaves.” But this first feature by Ali Jaberansari, a Tehran native partly raised in Canada who now lives in London, approaches the subject from a distinctive angle that has room for atypical elements, particularly an undercurrent of sly satire and humor. This modest but promising debut should travel well on the fest circuit, though the lightly impudent tenor that appeals might not pass muster with the censors at home.
That droll tone is established right away, as a cleric’s solemn recitation of Quran passages at the start of a corporate stockholders’ meeting is disrupted in turn by microphone feedback and ringing cell phones, not to mention the squirming impatience of attendees. Amir (a deft Masoud Rayegan, of Rez Mirkarimi’s “So Far, So Close”) is the respected CEO of a Tehran construction company that’s expanded considerably since the days of his late father, the founder. Even as he entertains hiring a consultancy firm to “modernize” and enter the international marketplace, he anticipates soon handing over the family business to his only son.
But there’s trouble on that front. Like most Iranians who can afford it, Amir has sent his offspring abroad for a higher education less doctrinaire than that offered by Iran’s institutions. He even allowed him to stay on an extra year after graduation, albeit under the same roof as his watchful, conservative mother and little sister. Now that it’s time to come home, however, Arash (heard on the phone but never seen) is balking. The class “privileges” he’ll enjoy in Iran have little appeal after a half-decade in liberal California. Further, it gradually emerges the young man has fallen in love with an American girl, wants to move in with her, and has no intention of following the path that tradition has set out for him.
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Left all alone (but for a fussing housekeeper) in the family’s luxury flat, Amir worries this situation endlessly, finding distraction in a chance meeting with his still-beauteous peer Ozraa (Nahid Molemi). She was his true love, but as she was a young widow raising another man’s child, he bowed to his own father’s wishes and instead entered lasting but (it’s hinted) unhappy wedlock with a more suitable bride. Finding excuses to meet further (though Ozraa has long since married another), he ponders the life he could have had with her, while weighing what right he has to deny Arash’s own love match.
Jaberansari studied for a time under Abbas Kiarostami, and the Iranian master’s influence can be seen in the reliance on static camera setups in which scenes play out at an unhurried length. But despite its essential seriousness, “Falling Leaves” often plays more like a deadpan Western indie comedy in which life’s little indignities become one increasingly funny running gag, always at our rattled protagonist’s expense. A garrulous cab driver at one point sums up the gist of a culture caught between old values and new realities by shrugging, “Everyone is stressed.” The modern comforts Amir surrounds himself with feel sterile and vaguely irksome; even his home is expensively characterless.
Packaging is not particularly slick, but resourceful and well thought out on likely modest means.