Were the title not already taken, “Nahid” writer-director Ida Panahandeh could easily have called her debut feature “A Separation,” for its similarly fraught portrait of the byzantine legal complications and social stigmas concerning divorce and remarriage in Iran. That thematic connection is hardly lost on Panahandeh, who has cast “A Separation” co-star Sareh Bayat in the title role here, as a small-town divorcee who finds herself navigating a peculiar minefield known as “temporary marriage.” The result is a reasonably absorbing, well-acted melodrama that lacks the taut dramatic construction and universal resonances of Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 Oscar winner, but adds another valuable voice to the cinematic chorus concerning the generally deplorable position of women in Islamic society. Further festival play and minor arthouse exposure should follow the film’s Cannes premiere.
Nahid (Bayat) is a single mother living in a northern Iranian coastal town where low gray clouds seem to hang perpetually in the skies, casting a literal and figurative gloom upon all they envelop. (The painterly HD visuals bear the influence of the Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan.) There, she ekes out a meager existence as a typist, forever borrowing from friends and falling behind on the rent, as she struggles to support herself and her moody teenage son, Amir Reza (Milad Hasan Pour). As part of her divorce settlement with her ex-husband, Ahmad (Navid Mohammad Zadeh), Nahid has been allowed to retain custody of the boy, provided she never remarries — a condition that turns problematic when Nahid wants to do settle down with her new boyfriend, the widower hotel owner Mas’ood (Pejman Bazeghi). If word gets out, Nahid knows she’ll face a messy custody battle from Ahmad, a degenerate gambler who still professes his love for her and yearns for their reconciliation.
That’s where the movie (which Panahandeh co-wrote with Arsalan Amiri) introduces the concept of temporary marriage, or “sighe,” a centuries-old Islamic law that allows for a man and a woman to legally couple without changing their official marital status on their government-issued identity papers. The paradoxical loophole (not unlike Islamic law’s condemnation of homosexuality but acceptance of transgenderism) can be used to justify everything from a one-night-stand to polygamy. What initially seems like it could be Nahid’s salvation, however, quickly proves to be anything but.
The idea of a marriage contract on the installment plan (in this case, monthly) is an idea so ripe for farce it’s hard to believe Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges didn’t come up with it. But this being present-day Iran, Panahandeh’s film feels closer to a 1940s or ‘50s Hollywood woman’s picture about a social outcast with few rights and even fewer options. It’s a dilemma that plays out vividly on the face of Bayat, a gifted actress (she was the devoutly religious home health worker in “A Separation”) who makes Nahid into a sympathetic but hardly saintly figure who can sometimes be her own worst enemy — as when she spends yet more money she doesn’t have on a bright red sofa that ends up becoming a garish symbol of her lust for a better life. She’s the most vivid character in a piece where both male protagonists are scripted a bit more predictably — the one (Mas’ood) patient and virtuous, the other (Ahmad) a self-destructive addict spiraling ever further into the void. Whatever the latter’s appeal to Nahid may once have been, it’s scarcely in evidence here.
Panahandeh, whose background is in documentaries and films for television, unfolds things with a generally sure, sensitive hand and a feel for the messiness of everyday life, especially the way Nahid’s marital woes must constantly take a back seat to other crises including a bedridden elderly mother and the ever more disobedient Amir Reza, who Nahid fears may be following a bit too closely in his father’s footsteps. Whereas Farhadi was able to transform a similar arrangement of elements into a breathless thriller, “Nahid” is content to remain on the level of a closely observed domestic drama, and while Panahandeh sometimes paces things a bit too leisurely, there’s nothing terribly wrong with that. In a country where female filmmakers are an even rarer breed than in Hollywood (and were, in fact, banned until the 1980s), “Nahid” announces her as a welcome presence upon the scene.