While “Taxi,” Jafar Panahi’s humanist take on the Iranian road-movie genre, triumphed in the Berlinale competition, over in the festival’s Forum section his countryman Ali Ahmadzadeh used some of the same Tehran streets by night for his original and disturbing “Atom Heart Mother.” Pitched somewhere between dream and reality, Ahmadzadeh’s surreal pic is an electrifyingly wacko tale of two party girls and their close encounter with someone who may or may not be the devil. Although certain absurdist aspects will prove more meaningful to Farsi speakers, the allegorical elements invite universal appreciation, as do the film’s discussions of nuclear energy and pop culture, and an exuberant rendition of “We Are the World.”
Like Ahmadzadeh’s debut film, “Kami’s Party,” “Atom Heart Mother” offers a telling portrait of a certain type of educated, upper-middle-class urbanite and their hopes, dreams and uncertainties. Here, the main characters are Arineh (Taraneh Alidoosti, “About Elly”) and Nobahar (Pegah Ahangarani, “Women’s Prison”), a pair of late-twentysomethings who display plenty of brightly dyed hair beneath their headscarves. We meet them as they stagger drunkenly out of a noisy party after midnight, musing about the cultural history of Western toilets and trashing puerile male pickup lines. A jump cut later, they are on the road.
As the girls giddily cruise the crowded streets of the capital (a favorite activity for youth in a country where gas prices are kept artificially low), they notice their friend Kami (Mehrdad Sedighiyan), sporting an oversized pair of red sunglasses, walking by the side of the road in spite of the hour and the air pollution. Kami is also a distinctive type, a self-conscious hipster who uses his idiosyncrasies to show that he is different. He has opinions about a lot of things and isn’t shy about expressing them. He’s also about to immigrate to Australia.
After a traffic accident at around the half-hour mark, the tone of the film starts to darken as the absurdity and the paradoxes typical of contempo Iranian life edge from the conceivable to the bizarre to the dangerous. This is due to the mysterious arrival of a charismatic stranger played by a commanding Mohammad Reza Golzar (former guitarist for the Arian Band, here styled to look like a dead ringer for George Clooney). He claims to have paid off the driver of the car that Arineh hit, and wants some help in return.
As the nattily clad gent climbs into Arineh’s backseat, he questions the girls in an overly familiar manner, while not revealing much about himself. It’s not a spoiler but a sign of the strangeness of things to come that his errand involves a supposedly dead dictator, whose weapons of mass destruction could never be found because they were hidden in a parallel world.
Film critics and sociologists will have a field day finding hidden meanings and cultural commentary in the dense screenplay penned by helmer Ahmadzadeh and Mani Baghbani. Their sharp and humorous observations on the irrationality of life in the Islamic Republic are epitomized by the fact that the film is set in 2009, during former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s “Subsidy Reform Plan,” when his government doled out a monthly sum of approximately $15 to every Iranian who bothered to register, and made it nigh impossible for people to withdraw money from an ATM whenever the transfer took place. The dialogue is also a strong suit, in the early going full of witty philosophizing, flirtatious sallies and authority-challenging double-speak that is the domain of clever young people the world over. The later monologues delivered by Golzar are so jaw-droppingly weird that they are destined to be cult classics.
The film’s chief flaw is its copout of an ending, which disappoints to an even greater extent, considering the strength of what comes before; it plays as if Ahmadzadeh ran out of money, energy or both. Nevertheless, “Atom Heart Mother,” along with Shahram Mokri’s “Fish & Cat” (2014), represents an exciting example of Iranian independent filmmaking, one that inspires hope for the future.
The four main actors are aces. Given the local name recognition for Golzar, Alidoosti and Ahangarani, it’s possible that the film will find its way to local screens, but the provocative content probably led to its omission from February’s Fajr Festival. Still, further international fest play is guaranteed.
The craft package is topnotch, with impressive nighttime lensing from Ashkan Ashkani and a blunt, non-classical editing scheme that furthers the feeling of an out-of-control dream. Striking music from composer Sahand Mehdizadeh and the numbers contributed by the cast provide essential atmosphere.