Returning to Sundance, where her debut feature Circumstance premiered in 2011, Iranian-American writer-director Maryam Keshavarz enters the festival’s U.S. Dramatic Competition with a crowd-pleasing quasi-autobiographical comedy-drama, The Persian Version.
A multi-generational family tale that spans roughly 60 years, two continents and assorted cultures from traditional Muslim families to queer New Yorkers, this lively, likable, if somewhat on-the-nose work grabs viewer attention with fourth-wall-breaking monologues, jocular explanatory graphics, and tightly choreographed dance numbers to vintage American and Iranian pop songs. The expansive ensemble is led by Layla Mohammadi playing the director’s alter ego Leila and Niousha Noor as her immigrant mother Shirin, who, in the manner of classic melodrama, clash but learn to respect one another by the end after secrets are revealed in extended flashbacks.
The Persian Version
The Bottom Line
Fizzy and fun for all the family.
The film’s present tense is somewhere in the early 2000s, its locus Brooklyn, downtown Manhattan and Jersey City, where protagonist and sometime narrator Leila grew up with Shirin for a mother, doctor Ali Reza (Bijan Daneshmand) for a dad and eight older brothers. That gaggle of siblings get quick, thumbnail introductions, but it’s clear from the start that their function is to be something of a babbling chorus of mildly buffoonish boys.
Although she was an academic star in school, the now twentysomething Leila is pursuing her goal of becoming a filmmaker. That single-minded focus on her career has already undone her short marriage to Elena (Mia Foo), leaving Leila free to enjoy no-strings hook-ups. For example, she gets it on with Maxmilian (Tom Byrne), an English actor in New York playing the title role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, after a Halloween party where he was dressed in his stage drag costume and she was wearing a skimpy yet revealing “burka-kini.”
But their tryst leads to an unexpected consequence, which will awkwardly bring Max into the family fold around the same time everyone is anxiously waiting for Ali Reza to recover from a heart transplant. This health crisis brings the many brothers back home to help keep watch at the hospital with Shirin while Leila mostly stays home to cook for her grandmother Mamanjoon (Bella Ward), a delightful biddy who likes dancing with her granddaughter and is seen often advising her in flashbacks to have anal sex with men in order to preserve her hymen for marriage. Mamanjoon’s casual mention of a family scandal involving Leila’s parents back in Iran before they immigrated piques the young woman’s curiosity.
Gradually, the film shifts focus from Leila to Shirin, and we see vignettes explaining how, ever the mistress of multitasking, she earned a GED and a realtor’s license simultaneously in order to bring in extra income. A natural wiz at business, Shirin excelled at sales and helped to seed a Little India neighborhood in New Jersey thanks to her savvy handling of immigrant customers. But it turns out that all that time she’s been haunted by a trauma from her past, which is acted out in scenes of a teenage Shirin (first-time actor Kamand Shafiesabet, a real find), only 13 years-old when she gets married off to Ali Reza (Shervin Alenabi) and moves to his village.
The film was shot in Turkey; Keshavarz explains in a director’s statement that she was banned from returning to Iran after the last feature film she shot there. The scenes in Farsi, with their dance numbers and punchy humor, feel very different from the films made by Iranian filmmakers we’re used to seeing. While acknowledging the oppression of women within the culture, and the heavy burden of tradition (shooting for this film finished just before the Mahsa Amini protests against hijab laws and the moral police kicked off), there’s none of the slow-paced, self-serious ponderousness that’s endemic in the work by big-name Iranian auteurs. Occasionally, Keshavarz lets the comedy get a little too broad — for example in the final scene, where practically everyone in the movie gets crowded into a hospital room at once — but even then the film’s infectious, fizzy energy is hard to resist.