Iranian filmmaker Massoud Bakhshi delivers an unparalleled gem at Sundance 2020 with Yalda, A Night for Forgiveness. Women who are found guilty of murdering their husbands are sentenced to death under Islamic law. On the contrary, Islamic law also allows those guilty to escape death if and only if they are forgiven by the victim’s family. Yalda operates with this age-old code at its core, which is encompassed by a very real modern twist. The film follows Maryam (Sadaf Asgari) who finds herself guilty of accidentally killing her husband. Unlike other cases, the 22-year-old has to ask for forgiveness on a reality TV show. Failing does not cost money or fame, her life is literally at stake.
Considering that the program will be viewed by millions of people celebrating Yalda does not help her state of being. Yalda is the Iranian winter solstice celebration taking place on the longest night of the year. Families across the country are united as they feast and engage in customs such as reading poetry. This year, they also get to see Maryam plead to Mona (Behnaz Jafari), the older daughter of her deceased husband, for her life. Fret not for musical performances, surprise celebrity guests, and more are also on the agenda!
Based on a real program in Iran, this could not be a stronger sophomore feat from director/screenwriter Bakhshi. His first film (which screened at Cannes in 2012), A Respectable Family, is banned in Iran for being critical of the country’s government and highlighting corruption. It is still unsure if Yalda will share the same fate, but this seems to be the last thing on Bakhshi’s mind for he aims to critique and dissect his homeland’s ways with honesty and a level head. What follows is a powerful inspection that consistently keeps one on the edge of their seats.
This is a masterclass in screenwriting. The script could not be more refined and brisk for such a heavy topic. Many who see this (especially western audiences) will not be much informed on Iranian tradition, let alone Iranian law. Never does the script spoon-feed information, or hold the viewer’s hand in understanding Iranian commonalities. Simultaneously, anyone can watch this without prior knowledge and still digest everything needed to be floored at the end. This story could not exist and be anywhere near effective if it did not come from Iranian minds.
Thanks to superb pacing (by the time the credits roll viewers will be amazed at how fast the past hour and a half just flew by), less is often more in Yalda and it is stunning how much Bakhshi can invoke from viewers by choosing this direction. Just a few minutes in and one will not have the will to look away. This is of course also due to the fervent performances on screen. Everyone adds a personal memorable spark to their role, but this show belongs to Sadaf Asgari and Behnaz Jafari. Both women go through hell and back, and pour out their souls in the process – their roles crucial enough to deflate tension and authenticity, instead they elevate it tenfold.
Many will read Yalda as slander instead of deconstruction. Given the film’s context and events, this might be a fair reading but it is still heavily misguided. Bakhshi does not direct with the intent to shame culture. With the passing of time and advancements in society, certain practices begin to age out. No country on earth is guilt-free of this. Bakhshi aims to expose those who wilfully profit from said customs. In some places in the world, such as Iran, the media has easier opportunities to exploit not only tradition but marginalized groups for profit.
Many will see Yalda as a wakeup call. Others will see it as just another ordinary day. Bakhshi wants to blur this line for the sake of people like Maryam. A brutally authentic window into what a woman’s day in Iran can be like, Yalda is not to be ignored. Cinema used for its greatest power and full potential – to move, expose, and enlighten minds.