Vahid Jalilvand’s No Date, No Signature is so worked out that you know that every nuance is pointed and intentional. Jalilvand’s formal craftsmanship and attention to detail are accomplished, though his self-consciousness has a way of drying out the drama for the sake of socially minded sermonizing, which is frequent in Iranian imports inspired by Asghar Farhadi’s live-wire parables. Farhadi isn’t without a didactic streak either, but he’s a wizard of movement and performance, fostering a mysterious kinetic energy that often enriches and transcends the parables themselves. Jalilvand’s direction here belongs more firmly and routinely to the tradition of the moral procedural, which is to say there’s a lot of competently framed images of people talking earnestly, in this case about the same subject, over and over.
No Date, No Signature opens on a masterfully abrupt note. Kaveh Nariman (Amir Agha’ee) is driving along a road when a vehicle clips him and causes him to run into a motorcycle, knocking its passengers over. Nariman stops to help the family he’s hit, primarily negotiating with its patriarch, Moosa (Navid Mohammadzadeh). Nariman is contrite and sympathetic, looking over Moosa’s young son to ensure that he hasn’t sustained a concussion or neck injuries. Moosa wants to call the police, but Nariman wishes to bypass that formality, instead offering Moosa cash and a ride to the local clinic. The audience later learns that Nariman is himself a medical professional, a forensic pathologist who’s allowed his vehicular insurance to lapse.
In modern Iranian thrillers, such a small indiscretion can beget disaster that serves as an indictment of both the machinations of individual citizens and the bureaucratic societies that govern their lives. The narrative involves a nesting series of neglects: Moosa doesn’t take his son to the clinic that night, spending Nariman’s money on a restaurant dinner for his family, while Nariman doesn’t disclose his involvement with the child to his hospital soon enough to prevent other calamities. Everyone’s desperation is compounded, of course, by financial panic that’s insidiously nurtured by class inequality.
Moosa’s son is ruled by the hospital to have died of botulism, which probably came from the chicken carcasses that Moosa bought cheaply to feed his family. But Nariman can’t let go of the possibility of his own guilt, no matter how remote the chances may be, and No Date, No Signature spins in circles waiting for him to receive the punishment he thinks he deserves. The guilt of yet another party—the unseen person who hit Nariman and kicked off this chain reaction of tragedy—is strangely deemed irrelevant to the narrative, though we’re meant to accept the inciting incident as happenstance.
That said, one wonders why Nariman doesn’t use that context as a rhetorical method of absolving himself. Probably because Jalilvand is very high on the notion of Nariman’s martyrdom. Nariman is essentially a saint who’s strayed once from righteousness, who’s invested with little temptation to let himself off the hook for the child’s death—a self-involved wrinkle that might’ve given the film a nasty charge. Moosa’s child died from a bewildering series of moralistic screenwriter-y coincidences. Nariman and Moosa both made agonizing mistakes, yet—as Jalilvand piles on the ironies—one somewhat perversely yearns for the protagonists to get over it.
To paraphrase a misquotation frequently assigned to Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, everyone has their reasons in No Date, No Signature; there’s even a moment of sympathy for the man who sold Moosa the bad chicken, who observes bitterly, “As if I sold a carcass and bought a garden.” The painstaking humanism of such a moment could make even a socialist groan, because the twists of No Date, No Signature don’t deepen the characters. Rather, they only affirm the intention of the pervading construction of the sermon. Here, Jalilvand displays less imagination than dutifulness.