There is a familiarity found when watching the first part of writer/director Maryam Keshavaraz’s new movie, The Persian Version, a feeling that although the culture captured on the screen may be unfamiliar, there is something universal about the ongoing battle between a mother and her daughter that is both comical and comfortable. It’s a bit confusing, too. The family in the film is so big, for example, that the daughter, Leila (Layla Mohammadi), introduces them as easy-to-identify stereotypes – The Brainiac, The Goth, The Metrosexual – to try and categorize the chaos of their clan. It’s almost tempting to get out a pad and paper and make notes to figure out who is whom in the big family scenes.
But don’t bother. None of the brothers bring anything but their labels to their scenes in the film, which is fine because despite a large family being the canvas this particular piece is being created on, The Persian Version only has two fully developed characters for audiences to pay attention to, Leila and her mother, Shireen (Nioisha Noor). And when they are on the screen, especially in scenes together, The Persian Version is mesmerizing.
It’s also layered. There is the layer of mother/daughter as they are as the film opens, depicting how they deal with the news that Leila, a gay Muslim, is pregnant as the result of a one-night stand with an actor starring in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Like a lot of the movie, it’s a story any audience can identify with, flavored by the family’s culture and religious beliefs. The second layer of the story is found when Leila starts to talk about who her mother is, what it was like growing up under her thumb, and the sacrifices Shireen had to make to keep her family together, safe, and alive when her husband has a debilitating heart attack. After watching them bicker so much in the beginning, it’s nice to see Shirren’s struggles and the way she overcame adversity. It does more than color in the sketch that Lelia has been building; it makes you understand and appreciate the feelings of both women.
That’s when the third layer hits you like a brick. While complaining to her grandmother yet again about the way her mom is treating her, Leila hears for the first time about a family scandal, an event so shocking that it short-circuits everything you’ve learned to believe in about the story up to that point. That may sound like a bad thing, but Keshavaraz’s skill as a screenwriter and a director keeps you thoroughly engaged in finding out all about that scandal. And then, in an example of pure cinematic magic, Keshavaraz brings the three layers together and fits them together stunningly.
Noor and Mohammadi do a fabulous job bringing Leila and Shireen to life. Noor gets the dream role of being able to play Shireen at the various stages of her life – frustrated mother, grieving wife, independent businesswoman – which gives her the ultimate showcase for her diverse talents. She also takes the time to center her character, giving her a solid core from which all these other Shireens can draw strength. Mohammadi’s performance is slightly less dynamic, or at least it appears on the surface. She’s the winy daughter trying very hard to hate what she sees wrong with her mom, mainly because she is starting to see them in herself. She’s the young gay woman trying to figure out how she could get pregnant from a one-night stand. She’s the outsider, the one who doesn’t fit in with any part of her Muslim/American family. By the end, thanks to Mohammadi’s skillful performance, she becomes the one who holds the family together, just as her mother did, and although she will not want to admit it, just like her daughter is destined to do so when she grows up.