Imagine a high-ratings, high-stakes game show that trivializes a convict’s life-or-death fate for public consumption. As wild as it sounds, a version of this reality TV entertainment apparently really exists in modern-day Iran, where writer-director Massoud Bakhshi’s “Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness” is set, and where a wildly popular edition of it has been airing for nearly a decade. Using that as an inspiration, Bakhshi unfolds “Yalda” entirely within one such controversial televised program, while navigating concepts like male entitlement, social order and media exploitation with mixed results. Even though there are multifarious ideas here around penitence and forgiveness as linchpins of Islam, “Yalda” eventually neglects the darker avenues of these themes wrapped inside an eye-for-an-eye justice model, guided by a firm religious code.
It’s a shame, since “Yalda” gets off to an absorbing start with the story of Maryam (Sadaf Asgari), a vulnerable young woman on death row for murdering her much older husband, Nasser. In an episode of a celebrated TV show — the provocatively (and ironically) titled “Joy of Forgiveness” — she would be facing Nasser’s quietly fuming daughter Mona (Behnaz Jafari), whose possible pardon could release Maryam from her death sentence in accordance with Iranian law. Meanwhile, the phone lines would be open to the public for donations, in order to raise the blood money Maryam would be obligated to pay to the victim’s family, again, per the country’s customs. And we’re fittingly on the night of Yalda, a traditional celebration dedicated to the longest night of the year in winter, marked by possibilities, family gatherings and colorful, pomegranate-accented decorations.
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At first, Bakhshi’s visual and narrative style within the high-trafficked studio hints at a fluid, satire-adjacent courtroom procedural, and maybe even a secretive tale that would gradually grow into an unexpected, patriarchy-defying whodunit. But this is no intricate Asghar Farhadi film with elegant inspections of truth and justice. The faint suggestion of a twist, that there may be more to Maryam’s motivations than meets the eye, quickly fizzles in mystery; a missed opportunity that downgrades the film’s emotional impact. What we’re left with is a case of accidental manslaughter, and an on-the-surface rendering of the events that led to it.
Still, “Yalda” is a lean enough sit with an economic running time and should prove engaging to theatrical audiences who have a taste for cinematic yarns that simulate a real-time framework in the style of “The Guilty.” For the most part, Bakhshi keeps things energetic. The show’s droll host, a haughty producer, a heartbreaking case of a stillborn child and concerned family members backstage inject the film with notes of intrigue, when the murder case itself falls short of delivering it. Also helping the flow are Jacques Comets’ swift editing as well as Julian Atanassov’s deft camerawork under bright spotlights.
Bakhshi’s sure-handed assessment of Iran’s class struggle, a thoughtfully-parsed topic with universal implications, is the film’s most fascinating dimension. His script successfully sets up Maryam and Mona as two females representing and steered by the opposite ends of the socioeconomic order. We learn that Maryam, who grew up around Mona’s family like a part of it, is the daughter of Nasser’s chauffeur. And when her forced temporary marriage — a type of culture-specific matrimony with an expiration date and complex, sometimes unfavorable implications for women — to Nasser happened, Mona’s actions took a manipulative turn. Even so, while magnifying that lens of class, he only scratches the surface of other crucial details, such as a wealthy man’s disturbing approach to a vulnerable, financially defenseless young woman.
Contrasting Asgari’s emotional volatility with something more reserved, Jafari delivers a memorable performance of many shades as a morally dubious woman involuntarily stuck in a position of crushing power in front of millions rooting for Maryam. Bakhshi is successful in bringing Mona’s story full circle as she discovers ways to exercise it the hard way. If only the filmmaker, a longtime documentarian with an observant aesthetic, could have delved deeper into the grander gender-based and judicial themes that surround the tale. While you leave “Yalda” with a thorough understanding of his society’s traditionalist complexities, you end up craving something a touch more critical.