Terrestrial Verses

Terrestrial Verses
April 25th 2024

Terrestrial Verses (2023) feels a little like a documentary, except also, increasingly, like a farce. It transpires as a simple series of vignettes, each with a stationary camera observing some unlucky Iranian citizen in reluctant dialogue with an offscreen authority figure. Enduring preposterous questions without necessarily dignifying them, the respondents seem boxed into their unyielding frames like bugs dropped into a jar by the sort of kid who deliberately doesn’t poke holes in the lid. It would seem from these interrogations that practically every manner of societal participation in Tehran—from naming a newborn to renewing a driver’s license to getting a screenplay greenlit—is conditional upon a mandatory scolding, or worse. In Terrestrial Verses, we get the bigger picture of a culture maimed by willfully punitive red tape, religiosity guided more by spite than spirit, and workplace sexual harassment so blithely ingrained that it starts before you’ve even got the job.

It is by shrewd design that co-directors Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatami’s characterizations don’t go over the top (or under the bottom, as is a hazard of the deadpan register), with finely modulated performances delineating the sly choreography of long static single-takes. Even the literally faceless establishment figures don’t come off as dimensionless monsters, just as their inquisitees can’t quite pass for hapless angels; in subtle ways, they all seem like beleaguered individuals and occasionally, in spite of their oppositional stances within the quagmire of absurd authoritarian inertia, intent on sincerely trying to connect. Nor does every episode pitch itself as an exoticized human-rights atrocity, which of course would be just another kind of blowhard moralizing. Asgari and Khatami wisely understand that the truest doldrums of the doctrinaire are everywhere, even in the humble, universally relatable tedium of meetings that could’ve been emails.

With their title borrowing a line from the Iranian New Wave progenitor Forough Farrokhzad, Asgari and Khatami exemplify their country’s great cinematic traditions of ingenious ambiguity, charged understatement, and getting into Cannes and into trouble simultaneously by pissing off censorious authorities with a sendup of censorious authorities. (After the Terrestrial Verses premiere, Asgari was banned from leaving Iran and making more films.) The irony isn’t delicious on account of being bitter. But at least their film has made it this far, a formally elegant testament to coping with oppression by way of the unseen and the unsaid, and a welcome opportunity for the uniquely cathartic comedy of subdued rueful laughter.

Terrestrial Verses plays at The Roxie May 13, 14, and 19, and The Lark May 13, 14, 15, and 19.



Terrestrial Verses runs April 26-May 2 at Film Forum. Director Alireza Khatami will be in attendance for a Q&A tonight and tomorrow night.