Clutter fills the mise-en-scène of Fireworks Wednesday like an unstated question pondering the fine line between a celebration and chaos. Persistent sounds of pop rockets and cap guns loom around the film’s primary action, which concerns a dissolving marriage between a middle-class couple, a young woman about to be married, and the bustling of the apartment complex where they live. The title of director Asghar Farhadi’s 2006 film takes its name from Chaharshanbe Suri, a Persian festival celebrated on the last Wednesday before the Iranian New Year, where Tehran is overrun with pyrotechnics and gleefully squealing youth. Farhadi juxtaposes a humanist drama against the holiday to examine how traditional cultural behaviors, like marriage premised on religious belief and an annual carnival, typically silence meaningful dialogue rather than fostering unrestrained expression.
Labyrinthine in scope, Fireworks Wednesday glimpses environments from within multiple modes of transportation that move throughout, or adjacent to, the city with varying degrees of freedom. The opening scene places Rouhi (Taraneh Alidoosti) on the back of a motorcycle behind her fiancé (Houman Seyyedi), who flips through photographs recently taken of the pair. They ride alongside a snowy mountain, freed from the noise of city streets. Still, Farhadi emphasizes claustrophobia through the film’s first shot: a close-up of the pictures replicating Rouhi’s eyeline. By refusing an establishing shot, Farhadi suggests that vision, no matter its environment, determines effect. That point is further substantiated by the film’s credits sequence, which shows Rouhi’s hand dancing in the wind, just outside of a window as she rides a city bus. Her eyeline is denied, but Farhadi’s disembodied perspective still retains Rouhi’s sense of touch and movement, since her hand stands in for the eye.
The film interrogates these tensions between tactility and vision in complex ways. Rouhi arrives in Tehran to clean the apartment of Mozhde (Hedye Tehrani) and Morteza (Hamid Farokhnezhad), a middle-class married couple spatting over Morteza’s suspected infidelities. Rouhi senses immediate hostility from the city folk, as a tenant makes her wait outside to be buzzed into the building, which is protected by a large steel gate. The inside of the apartment, what with all the large artifacts and plastic sheets littering the space, evokes less a place of bourgeois comfort than Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu during its waning days. With the sounds of minor explosions heard in the distance, the building becomes nothing short of a symbolic fort.
The film’s first hour proceeds as a chamber drama situating Morteza within the throes of a midlife crisis, while Mozhde roams the building’s stairwells chatting with neighbors and eyeing the door of Simin (Pantea Bahram), whom she suspects is sleeping with her husband. Farhadi stages conversations and glances at off-kilter angles or across barriers, meaning an exchange is often shot through a doorway or mirror reflection, rather than head-on. Such diverting of vision has a geometrical effect, giving many scenes an angularity that entraps characters within their own homes. It’s telling that the film’s sole instance of physical violence takes place on a busy street, as if being outside finally causes tensions to boil over. It’s equally telling, however, that even this scene is shot through a shop window, with the camera remaining at a distance and mediating action through a physical piece of the city.
After the film’s opening scenes, Rouhi becomes something of an audience surrogate, silently moving through a place she’s not familiar with, and constantly at the mercy of adults 20 years her senior whose lives have been compromised by a lack of communication and a failing of their religious vows. Early on, Rouhi comments to another tenant that Morteza seems angry and unbalanced. When asked if her fiancé is similar, she responds: “No, he’s not like that at all.” Her certainty of difference defines Fireworks Wednesday, since the passage of time weathers human spirits and convictions, but fails to alter a course of action, with this Wednesday being a temporal marker of ideological stasis in the name of newness and change.