Through sharp and often swift vignettes, Terrestrial Verses bubbles with the same pressure cooker atmosphere of the Iranian society it represents.
How do you make a film about a society drenched in oppression, where a totalitarian regime makes it impossible to name your child David, or for women to remove their hijab whilst driving? There is not one answer to this question, but for Terrestrial Verses, less is more. With its rigid form and structure, austere and steely delivery, lack of music and static camerawork, Terrestrial Verses is a film of admirable minimalism, but it also operates to a high level of social commentary.
Terrestrial Verses is formed of a series of refined vignettes, some swift, some longer and more complex, all taking place in Iran. Ali Asgari (The Silence) and Alireza Khatami’s (Oblivion Verses) film has a touch of Roy Andersson (You, the Living) to it due its minimal, controlled setups and mixture of humour and melancholy—although it is never as absurd or surreal as his films, and far more rooted in present day problems.
These vignettes range from job interviews to people shopping to someone trying to get a driving licence, depictions inspired by everyday people and Asgari and Khatami’s own experiences, and brought to life by an ensemble of actors. Specific to Iran, Terrestrial Verses also operates as a representation of societies around the world, with its negotiation-like conversations between ordinary people and authority figures. The figures in question—teachers, bureaucrats, businessmen—only feature as faceless voices: the camera never turns to view them, enhancing not only their complicity in this strict regime, but also ensuring the normal citizens being restricted are at the forefront of the film.
Inevitably, some scenes are better than others. One involves a young child in bright, vibrant clothing, dancing with large, flashing headphones, who is forced to try on multiple headdresses; the way her body and face deflates as each layer covers her up is startling. Meanwhile, a job interview turns sour, with the male interviewer asking sexually explicit questions. Other vignettes of Terrestrial Verses feel less memorable, but they all have a strong writing style to them, with Asgari and Khatami inserting a wide range of social commentaries organically.
Terrestrial Verses’ often blunt tone helps highlight the rules in all their oppressive detail, but it also leaves you wanting more. More imaginative treatment could have led to something elevated to an even higher, more resonant, memorable place. Instead, whilst Terrestrial Verses is frequently encapsulating with its urgent points, it becomes somewhat stunted by its rigid form. In consequence, the urgency of Terrestrial Verses, whilst obvious and present, feels slightly lacking.
The viewer is constantly aware of the relevance of Terrestrial Verses to our present, but perhaps never more so than when a filmmaker’s script is stripped of its basic plot and themes, so as to avoid Western values. The treatment of Jafar Panahi and other Iranian filmmakers by their own country sits at the very forefront of your mind when watching this docudrama. In fact, this particular vignette reflects Khatami’s own experience at having his film shut down, with his conversation with the Ministry of Culture as absurd and horrifying as depicted in the film.
Each vignette of Terrestrial Verses shows a citizen being demeaned, contributing to an atmosphere that builds in pressure. Such is the absurdity of the restrictions placed on Iranian people’s lives, Terrestrial Verses feels strikingly tragicomic; do you laugh or cry when faced with such onerous, hypocritical, impossible-to-navigate laws? Ultimately, Terrestrial Verses is an act of necessary rebellion in cinematic form, and is a mirror image of a society and world ready to explode.
Terrestrial Verses will be screened at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival on 4-5 October. Read our list of 25 movies to watch at the 2023 London Film Festival!