Like a tree falling in the forest, an apology cannot be accepted if no one is there to hear it. But just how true is forgiveness when it takes place before an expectant audience of millions? In Massoud Bakhshi’s second fiction feature following 2012’s political thriller A Decent Family, the director interrogates this question through the lens of women’s experiences within the patriarchal framework of modern Iranian society. Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness takes place within the space of a single evening, as young bride Maryam (Sadaf Asgari) appears on a television chat show to be held accountable for the murder of her much-older husband. Sentenced to death, Maryam may only be acquitted if the man’s daughter Mona (Behnaz Jafari) forgives her live on air.
Playing out in real time, Yalda is an absurd, Kafkaesque nightmare. Maryam is on trial, with a sentence of capital punishment hanging over her head, but her drama unfolds on the soundstage — a garish, noisy media circus to which viewers at home can text in to vote on her guilt. It all reads like an exaggerated, dystopian allegory for where our oversaturated, screen-worshipping global consciousness could lead us, but Bakhshi actually derives the conceit from Mah-e Asal, a real Iranian TV programme which was run from 2007-2018 in collaboration with the state judicial system as a mechanism to condemn or acquit people based on the Islamic “eye for an eye” concept of justice. The offended party is given the choice to forgive the accused live on air and, if they do, receive a significant blood money payment as compensation. It’s an horrific hybrid of ancient Islamic traditions and the monstrous Western impulse towards making a show of trauma and pain as content for increasingly apathetic audiences to consume. Bahkshi sets the film during the Persian festival of Yalda Night — which celebrates family and togetherness — to further reinforce the bitter irony and inertia at the heart of this preposterous situation.
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Asgari’s Maryam is a diminutive figure, like a fawn trapped in the headlights, corralled from pillar to post and badgered by a cavalcade of overbearing interlopers. She shrinks amid a maelstrom of demands and instructions from her frantic mother (Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy), the programme’s slick, insincere host (Arman Darvish) and a litany of squabbling production staffers. Barely out her teens, Maryam finds herself swept up in a preposterous life-or-death struggle wrought upon her by sexist power structures — it soon becomes clear that she pushed her aging husband down the stairs to his death in self-defence against his rage at the news of her pregnancy, but the interests of both Iran’s conservative patriarchy and mass-appeal television’s appetite for scandalous narratives intervene.
Yalda feels claustrophobic, exacerbated by Bakhshi’s restless, intrusive camera. The director’s documentary background is brought to bear on backstage scenes — intensive close-ups draw out the desperation writ on Maryam’s face, and the camera rushes and scrambles to keep up with frenetic walk-and-talks down hallways or intrude on hushed strategising in locked side-rooms. The chaos of proceedings is apparent in the disparity between these moments, which are squeezed in during impromptu ad breaks as floundering runners cobble the show together on the fly, and those on the soundstage during broadcast. Darvish’s performance as the host is softly spoken, seemingly warm and empathetic towards Maryam, but his needling questions dig for the kind of dirt that brings in viewing figures and donations. The camera is as steady and faux-earnest as the host, framing Maryam in her chair as she fidgets and eventually explodes against the casual horror of what is happening to her. Adding to her irritation is the spectre of Mona that haunts the film’s early stretch. She is expected to sit across from Maryam and both women have been invited to say their piece, but Mona doesn’t arrive until late on, at which point she brings the full power of the decision she is expected to make down on her young opponent.
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These are two women at cross-purposes, but both are pushing against the oppressive realities enforced on them because of their gender. Maryam sobs and screams about her late husband’s unwelcome propositions when she worked at his company as a low-level office clerk. Her marriage to Mona’s father was a result of his coercion, and there’s a palpable class dynamic at play in both his historical use of wealth and influence to get what he wants, and in Mona’s presiding over the young girl as she does after his death. But Mona is also trapped as the dutiful daughter, at risk of losing everything if her father’s legacy is tarnished. She is appearing on the show to forgive Maryam because she needs the blood money to set herself up outside of her father’s shadow, but the reality of granting it to her is an immense and complex undertaking under an unwelcome spotlight. Both performers reach wide across the emotional spectrum, with Jafari oscillating between detached poise while on air and ferocious retribution behind the scenes. Meanwhile, Asgari keeps Maryam authentically consistent — desperation simmers behind her big eyes and spills forth in wild, childlike hysteria at a crisis point. It’s hard to watch either woman navigate this dynamic, but it’s transfixing work all the same.
In front of an audience of millions, forgiveness transforms from an act of human interaction into a game of chess. Mona and her advisors jostle for the best strategy to”‘win” the broadcasted face-off, while Maryam and her cohort fall back on hope, uttering “Inshallah” (if God wills it) repeatedly as an act of surrender to the incomprehensibility of what is unfolding. Bakhshi’s work is uneasy and confrontational, intersecting matters of religion, justice, gender, capitalism and family in a heady and propulsive 90-minute drama. There are no easy or satisfying answers as its end, just a young, lost girl chewed up and ogled by myriad systems rigged against her. In the end, Yalda shows itself to be a deft treatise on how the contradictions of our modern world complicate something even as simple as saying sorry.
Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a cultural journalist from Doncaster, England. He now lives in South London, where he drinks copious amounts of ginger beer.