Afghanistan-born, Tehran-based brothers Jamshid and Navid Mahmoudi continue their examination of life among Afghan refugees in Iran with the touching drama “Rona, Azim’s Mother.” Written and directed by Jamshid and produced by Navid, this tale of a middle-aged son facing a life-and-death decision regarding his gravely ill mother provides an illuminating picture of family tensions and bureaucratic frustrations that arise in a community trapped in a seemingly never-ending state of limbo. Selected as Afghanistan’s submission for the foreign-language Oscar category, “Rona” made its international premiere in Busan — the stop on what promises to be a healthy festival run.
Following their Jamshid-directed, Navid-produced debut “A Few Cubic Meters of Love” (2014) and the Navid-helmed, Jamshid-produced “Parting” (2016), the Mahmoudis (who also write and usually edit their work) have completed a remarkable hat trick of foreign-language Oscar submissions with “Rona.” In keeping with the previous films, the siblings’ mission here is to speak for the millions of Afghans forced from their homeland over the past several decades.
“Rona” begins with simple scenes of daily life for Azim (very well played by respected Iranian actor-director Mohsen Tanabandeh), a night-shift laborer on Tehran’s municipal maintenance crew who’s called the city home for what seems to be at least 10 years. Unable to have children with wife Asemeh (Fatemeh Mirzaei), Azim considers himself to be in a state of repentance until such time as God gives him a baby.
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As the title suggests, Azim’s life centers on his mother, Rona (Fatemeh Hosseini), an elderly woman soon to be smuggled illegally to Germany with son Faroogh (Mojtaba Pirzadeh) and his family. After a farewell party full of high-spirited singing and dancing, Azim is told by community elder Uncle Rahmat (Ollah Ahangaran) that Faroogh, without any proper explanation, has decided not to take Rona with him.
Azim’s fury at his “shameless” and “without honor” brother is the trigger for events that bring the plight of those without a secure home or full citizen’s rights sharply into focus. After suffering a fall, Rona is diagnosed as severely diabetic and in need of an immediate kidney transplant. In a sequence that’s confronting on any number of levels, Azim and his friend Fazel (Alireza Ostadi) find a mute Iranian man who’s willing to sell one of his kidneys, for a price. Serving as interpreter and sign-language communicator is the man’s young son, who barely bats an eyelid during the robust and explicit negotiation process.
The sadness and despair that’s been escalating in Azim reaches a boiling point when he secures an agreement for the kidney in question, only to be informed by authorities that it’s illegal for Iranian nationals to donate organs to foreigners. As his beloved mother’s condition deteriorates, Azim contemplates risking his own life by giving up a kidney, which in turn brings his sister, Hengameh (Fereshteh Hosseini, “Parting”), and other members of the Afghan refugee community into the frame as potential donors.
The decline of Rona from a lively and loving matriarch to a bedridden and helpless living corpse could be interpreted as a metaphor for Afghanistan itself. Despite the best efforts of many around her, there seems to be no feasible solution to her condition.
Whether viewed as metaphor or as a straight-ahead family drama, “Rona” is likely to move many viewers with its refusal to indulge in melodrama, as well as its compassion for those attempting to attain a greater degree of self-determination and live with dignity in a system that’s often stacked against them. Critically, Iranian authority figures in the film such as Dr. Khalidi (Mehran Mamdou) are not shown as villains. They are caring, but constrained by rules beyond their control.
The Tehran that Azim and his community occupy is captured in the gritty images of cinematographer Koohyar Kalari (“Parting”). Shots of Azim performing back-breaking work in the dead of night on beltways and sewers are frequently backlit with blinding white light, giving the sense that he and fellow refugee workers exist in a world cut off from the mainstream of the city. All other technical work, including Sahand Mehdizadeh’s delicate score, is right on the money.