The first thing we see in the Iranian film Fireworks Wednesday (Chaharshanbe-soori), directed by Asghar Farhadi, is a young couple on a motorcycle—he in a leather jacket and jeans, she in a full black chador—as they ride along a deserted snowy road, laughing and talking over the roar of the bike. She, perched behind him on the motorcycle, flips through some photos they've just had developed, reaching over his shoulder to show him some of them. She teases, "What are you looking at here?" We get a brief view of the photo and see two laughing faces—but he is obviously glancing down at her chest. He teases, "What, I can't check out my bride-to-be?" In the next moment, her billowing chador gets caught in the back wheels of the motorcycle, and they come to a grinding halt.
There's a bit of tension, with him warning her to be more careful. He is annoyed, she is defensive, and he finally says, "Nobody can see you out here anyway." Meaning: why do you have to wear it here? She sits on a rock on the side of the road, laughing off his scolding, and it all disintegrates into a shrieking snowball fight.
The plot of this lovely movie, my favorite I have seen so far in the Tribeca Film Festival, is basically a soap opera, a Tehran-set version of Desperate Housewives. If someone had told me the bare bones of the narrative, I might have rolled my eyes. Roohi—the young woman in the first scene, played by Taraneh Alidoosti—goes to work as a cleaning lady for an upper middle-class couple and finds herself in the middle of a domestic uproar. Wife suspects that husband is having an affair. Her suspicions have driven her to the point of physically obvious depression ("What has happened to you? Look at you!" says her glamorous lipsticked sister, concerned at the dreariness of her sibling's appearance), and also creepy paranoia (listening at doors, plotting, conniving, spying). She thinks her husband is sleeping with the semi-floozy neighbor, who runs an illegal hair salon out of her apartment. Husband is infuriated that he is under suspicion, and also infuriated that his once lovely and fun wife is now a drip who can't put a smile on her face. The couple has a son, a wee thing of 8 or 9 years old, who is caught in-between his warring parents. Roohi, glowing with happiness at her upcoming marriage, full of hope, finds herself—on this one long day—an unwitting witness to what marriage so often turns out to be. So all of this is rather cliché and, with a less deft director at the helm, could be tiresome and treacly.
But the charm of Fireworks Wednesday is not in an innovative story. It is in scenes like the one where Roohi sits on a bus, going to her temp agency to get an assignment, and puts her hand out the window. The music is in a melancholy minor key, a direct contrast to the giggly light-hearted mood of the pre-credits sequence on the motorcycle. We can see her billowing black sleeve and a pale hand swimming its way through the air. There is love here, and expectation, and a sense of looking-forward-to-things, but deep crevasses also exist, there is always an undercurrent of potential loss.
Fireworks Wednesday takes place during one or two days—the leadup to and culmination of Nowruz, the Persian New Year celebration. It is the happiest of Persian holidays, an excuse for families to get together, an excuse to set bonfires in the streets and dance around them, and yet it has a controversial history in recent years, since it is a remnant of the Zoroastrian past. The Nowruz focus on family and innocent activities such as picnics and fireworks and apples and sparklers serves as a grim counterpoint to the driving force of the film, which is the disintegration of this one particular marriage.
Hedye Tehrani, a delectable actress, plays Mozhde, the depressed wife. This is a marvelous performance, layered, painful, heartfelt. It's a difficult part. The character is not likable, first of all, and we spend ¾ of the film thinking she is overreacting, hysterical, and a pain in the ass. But one of the marks of a great actress is her indifference to being liked by the audience, her unconcern with being sympathetic. This takes courage and Tehrani has it in spades. What a face, what a talent. She is a gorgeous woman, but you would never know it from the bleak smile-less countenance she has here. She screams at her husband. She man-handles her son. She paces, twitches, never at rest. She is cold and distant to Roohi, and yet also conniving and sly, using poor Roohi as a go-between, a messenger. Tehrani has one of those malleable expressive faces so beloved by cameras everywhere. She thinks something, and it shows. She feels something, and we get it. The scenes of the fights with her husband are electric, exhilarating to watch. They feel like real arguments and have a jagged chaos to them that is truly frightening. We come into their marriage at the end of it, but we can feel, through the intensity of how they argue, that there was once a great love between them. It's quietly devastating.
There's another level to this film, one of larger cultural and class issues. Roohi is obviously lower middle-class, judging both from her job and by the fact that she wears the full black chador. The women she encounters in the apartment complex where she goes to work—Mozhde, Mozhde's sister, the floozy hair salon owner, and the snooty neighbor with groceries—are all upper-middle class. Mozhde's sister is a babe who wears jeans, Ugg boots, and—as a concession to the law of the land—a small blue silk scarf wrapped around her head. The hair salon owner's luxurious bangs rebelliously tumble out from beneath a flowered headscarf. Into this world comes Roohi with her full chador, which has already been set up and referenced in the first scene with the motorcycle. That, we now see, was deliberate. (The chador becomes important to the plot later, used by Mozhde to try to trap her husband.)
The film doesn't pass judgment on one side or the other; it merely presents the issue. Roohi isn't seen as all-good and pure (she has some mischief to her, and stubbornness), and Mozhde isn't seen as decadent and corrupt. But there are complexities at work that dictate how the characters relate to one another. When Mozhde finds out that Roohi is soon to be married, she asks her kind of bluntly if she is thinking of having her eyebrows waxed for the big day. (Roohi's eyebrows are, indeed, of a Jennifer Connelly-esque thickness.) Roohi has never been to a salon and is rather intimidated by the thought of it. Yet you can tell she is intrigued. Mozhde suggests she go to the illegal hair salon in the apartment complex (Mozhde has ulterior motives here, due to her suspicions of her husband's infidelity with the hairdresser). Roohi hesitates, and then says, "I need to ask my fiancé's permission." Mozhde says flatly, "Why?" This scene brought to mind Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven (Bacheha-Ye aseman), another Iranian film that shows the class divide in Tehran without being too overt about it.
The final scene of Fireworks Wednesday has Roohi finally reunited with her fiancé after her long and draining day witnessing the messy dissolution of a marriage. Her fiancé has no idea what she just went through. But as she approaches him, standing there next to his bike, he senses something. A shift. There's something in her that is now distant from him. The laughing girl on the back of the bike is altered somehow. He then notices something more concrete and asks her, "Where's your chador?" The same chador that was such an issue for him in the first scene of the film. She is tired. It is now 11 pm, she has been through the wringer, missed her own Nowruz celebration because of the domestic drama in which she was embroiled. So she says, "It's a long story. I'll tell you later." And then, upsettingly, quietly, we see a doubt dawn on his face. It's just a flash, nothing big, but will that doubt one day blossom into the unhinged, eavesdropping paranoia we saw in Mozhde? Or will this couple, against the odds, make it? Nothing is said, but the silence between the pair is eloquent. I flashed back on their laughing camaraderie in the first scene and felt the loss of it. And then something else happens on his face, as he stares confusedly at her, with that painful doubt in his eyes. Something softens. He says then, "What did you do to your face?" He has noticed her sleek new eyebrows. She is shy, wordless, and he says, in a voice that brought a lump to my throat, "You have never looked so beautiful." It was in that moment that I realized how much the film had worked on me, how involved with these people I had become.
Fireworks Wednesday is a small gem.
Sheila O'Malley blogs about movies, books, and mortifying high school memories at The Sheila Variations.