Forgiveness as a core component of individual growth and communal bonding is a shared concept between the world’s three major religions, with each ideology embracing similar beliefs about the relationship between punishment and deliverance. Admitting mistakes is opening yourself up to criticism and judgment, and forgiving someone for an offense against you is giving grace. The ritual is recognizable—but its transformation into a reality television form, and the grim questions that arise from turning absolution into entertainment, are convincingly and devastatingly considered in the film “Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness.”
Winner of the Grand Jury Award for World Cinema: Dramatic at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, “Yalda” unfolds like a production from Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, a two-time winner of the Best International Feature Film Oscar (for 2011’s “A Separation” and 2016’s “Seller”). Farhadi’s films are packed with detail on Iranian domestic life, the myriad labyrinths of bureaucratic policies, and how the state’s interpretation of Islamic law impacts its judicial practice, and compatriot Massoud Bahkshi works with a similar combination of narrative considerations in “Yalda.” The result is a twisty plot that sometimes feels like a family drama, sometimes like a legal thriller, with Bahkshi delivering the surprise, allowing the film’s characters time to react, and then dropping another secret that’s even more shocking than the first. It’s a delicate balancing act that calls for increasingly higher stakes, and in quieter times “Yalda” sometimes loses momentum. But those scenes where everything clicks on each other are so uncomfortable and tense that you won’t forget them right away.
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Under Iranian law, the perpetrators of the country’s most heinous crimes face execution (“an eye for an eye”), but the justice system also provides opportunities for pardons. If the victim’s family agrees to pardon the convict for his crime, instead of death, the person will receive a reduced prison time and be responsible for paying the “blood price” debt. This entire arrangement has been adapted for Iranian reality TV: For 11 years, the hugely popular “Honey Moon” was shown during the holy month of Ramadan and collected donations from citizens—in the millions in total—that helped pay off the blood debt of prisoners. .
That system became Bahkshi’s inspiration for “Yalda,” in which Maryam (Sadaf Asgari), a young woman in her 20s, is powerfully armed by her mother to appear on the “Joy of The widely watched “Joy of Forgiveness” was the only chance for convicted murderer Maryam to avoid execution for the murder of her husband, a decades-old advertising agency executive. If Maryam’s story echoed, she could still be alive. But she has plenty of people to convince: not only the show’s producers, hosts, and control room, but also her studio audience, the 30 million viewers watching at home, and, most importantly, the only child of her husband and former friend of Maryam, Mona (Behnaz. Jafari).
In the end it was Mona’s decision whether Maryam lived or died, and so Maryam had to confirm her forgiveness on television. On a lavishly decorated TV, surrounded by flower displays, fruit plates, and gilded furniture, Maryam tells her story, answers the host’s interrogation questions, and overcomes Mona’s obvious hatred. Meanwhile, backstage and in the studio lobby, various other individuals gathered whose motivations could derail the version of the program that Maryam was trying to present.
“Yalda” is a very dense film, with almost everything happening on the set of a reality show or at a nearby traffic stop, so a sense of claustrophobia is present from the start. Adding to that tension is how often the characters’ memories and explanations conflict with each other: Maryam’s mother has a different understanding of her daughter’s relationship with her husband than Maryam herself, while Maryam and Mona argue about how the former became ingrained into the latter’s family. . Incorporated into Bahkshi’s script is consideration of Iran’s social dynamics, and the naturalistic appearance of the cast makes clear the deep divisions in economic class, particularly between Iranians living in the country and those who may leave for new lives in Europe, Canada, or the United States.
But all of this comes down to Asgari and Jafari, who in a nutshell are amazing. The point of “Yalda” is that we may never really understand why other people make the choices they do, and the two actresses each put their own spin on that specific frustration. Asgari’s wide eyes and youthful features underscore the childish nature that made her suffering so depressing, but the details of how her husband died are shocking to later reconcile. Jafari nicely conveys Mona’s arrogance and disgust at having to appear in “The Joy of Forgiveness”, but she also makes us feel the deep pain of losing her father. The situation these women find themselves in is impossible to describe, and the strength of “Yalda, the Night of Forgiveness” is in how much empathy it takes from us while still keeping us involved in their suffering.
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