With six protagonists serving as a cross-section of Tehran’s youthful population, director Hossein Keshavarz’s Dog Sweat is a somber, minor-keyed debut feature about the daily manifestations of oppression in contemporary Iran. Its touches of romantic comedy and melodrama are more pronounced (and pedestrian) than in the works of veteran Iranian auteurs like Abbas Kiarostami and the incarcerated Jafar Panahi, but occasional clunkiness—particularly in an ill-fitting, violent climax—hardly diminishes its vision of the capital city, luminous in its mountain-ringed daylight glory, as a place of thwarted will and stunted aspirations. Keshavarz and co-writer Maryam Azadi’s battle the multi-plot drama template’s reliable bumpiness through the linked dilemmas of two gay men, a party boy having a dark night of the soul, an underground female singer, and a sexually precocious single girl and her film-student brother just returned from America. The mood is a unified one of society-wide frustration and futility, even in the lightest episode, in which the film grad and his new girlfriend, who announces she’s ready to “have fun” now that her thesis is done, seek a hotel or apartment bed in which they can have an unnoticed tryst.
Dog Sweat’s tight compositions, from girlfriends making bedroom confessions of their courtship secrets to liquor-seeking middle-class layabouts inquiring about the titular homebrew in a residential alley, expressively reinforce the dialogue’s more didactic points about externally imposed strictures. A conservative, hymn-singing woman tells her secretive pop-vocalist daughter that an arranged marriage is her only path to happiness—and that match is to a rich man (Ahmad Akbarzadeh) on the down-low who tells his abandoned working-class male lover, “I’ve decided to stop battling the world.” The relatively timid portrayal of this gay relationship (splashing in the pool, sharing the gym’s weight room) perhaps reflects the aim of Keshavarz, an Iranian with an MFA in film from Columbia, to appeal in part to an audience of fellow emigrants unprepared to see too much liberation dramatized in one movie. Given the state’s crackdown on film artists in Iran over the last decade, and the surreptitious, unlicensed shooting of this regime-critical drama, the flaws of Dog Sweat’s dramaturgy can be acknowledged along with its authentic capture of a nation in cultural and existential limbo.