The cinema of Iran has often been marked by stylistic qualities of delicacy and restraint. It has found ways to speak loudly with a whisper. But “Sheeple,” the traumatically explosive closing-night selection of 1st Iranian Film Festival New York, amounts to a rather spectacular counterexample. It’s a drama set in the lower depths of society — it follows a bedraggled family of drug dealers in the south of Tehran — and it’s a violent, charged-up, attack-the-block movie that comes at you with a feverish spirit of underworld degradation that’s startling to behold.
The characters are scurrilous desperadoes and derelicts (you might have to reach back to “Pixote” to find a street drama this purged of romance), and they have a way of stepping on each other’s words that has you racing to read the subtitles. Yet there’s a larger vision at work here — an image of appetite and survival colliding with a medieval belief system. The title of “Sheeple” means just what it sounds like: The film is about lost human sheep desperately searching for a shepherd, a quest that seems beyond them.
The central figure, Shahin (Navid Mohammadzadeh), is one of the mangiest characters I’ve ever encountered in a movie, and I mean that as praise. Shahin doesn’t just fly off the handle — he lives off the handle. But he’s a bantam-weight thug, a gutter rat, a nattering scoundrel reined in by self-loathing, a bully too skittery to gather much of his own power. Navid Mohammadzadeh, with burning eyes and an accusatory rasp, suggests a grungy, aging-street-urchin version of David Thewlis in the ’90s. His Shahin isn’t an easy protagonist to warm up to, so it takes a while to accept that we’re stuck with him.
Yet Mohammadzadeh is a fantastic actor, and he plays Shahin with a prickly, lived-in desperation that makes “Sheeple,” for all its helter-skelter crime-film energy, a serious and humane movie. It opens with a slow-motion tableau of a hoodlum gang rushing forward, brandishing knives and hammers and chains, ready to do as much damage as possible. But even when the characters are just ranting and shouting past each other, they channel a reckless emotional violence that’s oddly expressive in its desolation.
“Sheeple,” written and directed by Houman Seyyedi, is set in a society where everything is breaking down: loyalty, brotherhood, family, religious law. Shahin works for his brother, the merciless walrus Shakoor (Farhad Aslani), who presides over a drug business so slipshod that by our standards it barely qualifies as “organized” crime. He recruits his pushers, and even some of his family, from a corrupt adoption ring (the domestic relations here are sketchier than the ones in “Shoplifters”), and they cook crystal meth and spread it throughout their impoverished neighborhood. Any overlap with certain sections of the United States is entirely coincidental yet meaningful. Maybe we’re living at a moment, or on a planet, that’s losing its faith and replacing it with chemical highs. And there’s something bracing about the way a movie like “Sheeple,” which is set in a more overtly devout culture than ours, touches that phenomenon.
The plot is really an incident that snakes its way through, entangling the characters in a cataclysm of their own devising. Shahin and Shakoor have a sister, Shohreh (Marjan Ettefaghian), who has been working as a hairdresser. To model the hair colors available to her clients, she has dyed her ponytail seven different hues — a rainbow of options. She has done it to help build her business, though also, perhaps, as a buried act of transgression. When Shohreh reveals the ponytail to a man in an SVU she barely knows, he casually shoots a cell-phone video of her removing her head scarf, and the video ends up on the Internet.
The brothers go ballistic at this alleged blasphemy. That’s true, most especially, of Shahin and Shakoor’s youngest brother, Shahrouz (Mahyar Rahat-Talab), who is barely into his teens but has the fully cultivated blank scowl of a sociopath. His violent assault on his sister is terrifying to behold, but just as much so because of how the other two brothers react (Shakoor never looks up from the meal he’s eating). Film is about transcending cultural differences, but this is one sequence where cultural differences are…different. It’s hard for a Westerner to begin to crawl into the mind space of someone who would think, “My sister dyed her hair seven colors and took off her head scarf to expose it? That’s obviously a human disgrace punishable by death.”
Yet part of the power of “Sheeple” is that this brutal response destroys what’s left of the family’s fractious unity. Shahin endured his own version of this brand of barbarism: When he was young, his addict father (Farid Sajjadi Hosseini), now old and feeble, pressed a hot wine bottle into his forehead, leaving a scar that Shahin obsessively attempts to keep covered with a forelock of his hair. “Sheeple” unveils the agonies of an outwardly pious culture that baptizes itself in puritanical pain.
Seyyid knows just where to place the camera, but you don’t catch him doing it. He’s one of those naturals who thinks with the camera, never more so than in his existential action sequences, which are deeply exciting (though it’s tantamount to a kind of moral myopia to regard this as a genre film). To call the world of “Sheeple” dog-eat-dog would be to elevate it — it’s more like vicious-dog-yaps-at-other-vicious-dog. Shahin’s family is held together by the same fury that’s tearing it apart. And the scene in prison where Shahin finally confronts his gang-boss brother has the sting of a deliverance. It’s that we get to see, at long last, what’s hidden beneath the muck of his desperation and forlorn rage: the desire, quite simply, to breathe free.