It is not often that you hear women in Iranian cinema discuss abortion and rarely in the first twenty minutes of a film’s opening. It is the first indication that 180° Rule is a little different and that there’s a woman at the helm. Farnoosh Samadi, over the course of 83 minutes, subtly depicts a woman’s experience in a society fighting between tradition and modernity which renders women and girls without agency, and often leads to suffering and silence.
Sara (Sahar Dolatshahi) is a school teacher, well liked and preparing for a few days leave to celebrate a family wedding when one of her students, Yasi (Sadaf Asgari) admits to being pregnant (after swallowing pills to induce miscarriage). Sara offers guidance and advice where she can before heading home to pack. However popular she is at work, home life is a somewhat different matter – visually symbolised by the boiling, overflowing milk-pan on the stove in the opening frame – her husband Hamed (Pejam Jamshidi) is aloof, unfeeling, stoic and somewhat miserable. Criticisms come thick and fast and those that don’t are loaded in accusation.
She’s a nag, she smokes too much, she has allowed the cat on the bed again, she’s a bad driver, she’s responsible for his daughter being ill (it’s a cough and a temperature…) and then he’s claiming his workload will prevent him from accompanying her and daughter Raha to the upcoming nuptials. Which means that they have to stay behind lest travel unaccompanied or in the car with a ‘strange man’ (a taxi driver). This is made all the more disappointing by just how much his child has been looking forward to being the flower girl. Weighing up her options – and the expectations of her mother, extended family and daughter – Sara makes a choice and it is a decision that will change her life irreparably and we see the ripples for the remainder of the film.
During which time Samadi intentionally disrupts and disorientates the audience. The inclusion of Yasi’s subplot later on is purposeful and in keeping with the pace of the film and its reflection of reality. Change happens so quickly and impulsive, even inexplicable, decisions don’t always have time to reverberate or be made understandable – the plain and simple fact is that people, women can suddenly start acting strangely.
In a patriarchal society – like the one depicted so astutely onscreen – moral responsibility is placed on women, they’re conditioned to follow the rules, to do as they are told and avoid transgression at all cost. If they fail they’re expected to suppress their feelings and the pressures of secrets, lies, shame and guilt can often be their undoing, sadder still is that Samadi’s screenplay is loosely based on a true story.
180°Rule is an evocative film that won’t necessarily be embraced by all but the juxtaposition of light and dark, black and white whether figuratively or in a lighting choice, a costume, or animal in frame is striking. Its mournful score, thanks to Amir Nobakht’s sound design only adds to the haunting melodrama and subtle social commentary.
It’s a technically impressive and visually arresting drama led by an extremely convincing lead in Dolatshahi. Were it not for her and the empathy she elicits, from what becomes a largely subdued and silent performance, it is doubtful the film would work quite so well. It will be likened to the work of Asghar Farhadi, somewhat understandably during one particular scene yet however flattering it is to be compared to a master filmmaker, and for a first feature no less (following short films: The Silence (2016), Grace (2017) and The Role (2018)), this piece of work is made all the more compelling, not in spite of but because of its female lens.