Few filmmakers do dialogue like the Iranian writer and director Asghar Farhadi does dialogue.
The (rightful) winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award for his 2011 film A Separation, Farhadi writes in layers upon layers, unfurling revelations and hiding secrets in all of his scripts. A Separation was about an unraveling marriage, the stresses of Iranian life with such a restrictive government, and the balance between being a parent and being a child, and those are themes Farhadi plays with constantly—look at his 2013 film The Past, about the relationship between an Iranian man, his French ex-lover, and her new Algerian boyfriend, or at 2006’s Fireworks Wednesday, which is finally getting an American release.
Farhadi tackles the same subjects time and time again—domesticity and marriage, and all the different little ways people trust and hurt and lie to each other—and if A Separation was his masterwork, you can sense him feeling out those ideas in Fireworks Wednesday, crafted five years before the Oscar winner. Set in the Iranian capital of Tehran on the Wednesday before the first day of spring, which is the secular Iranian New Year, Fireworks Wednesday begins with the young woman Rouhi (Taraneh Alidoosti), who is preparing for her wedding in the next few days.
She’s bubbly and vivacious, showing her fiancé their engagement photos as he drives her to work on his motorcycle, and when a coworker brings her a wedding dress to try on, her excitement is obvious. As a maid-for-hire, Rouhi’s job that day is at an upper-class apartment that seems totally out of her world: people that live there have their own cars, the building’s residents are loathe to let her in, and the family she’s working for has an apartment full of crystal and weighty-looking furniture. It’s a different reality from her working-class life.
But almost immediately, Rouhi is caught up in the drama of her employers. The husband, Morteza (Hamid Farokhnezhad), hired her without his wife Mojdeh’s (Hedye Tehrani) knowledge, and when she finds out, she’s not happy about it. Although Morteza and Mojdeh are preparing for a trip to Dubai with their young son, there’s clearly trouble brewing—almost bubbling over—between the couple. “You said we’d talk it over today,” she spits at him; “You’re the one who said too much,” he retorts back at her. These are people who talk in circles, who accuse each other without coming outright, who hold resentments and grudges.
“I don’t owe you an explanation,” Mojdeh says to Rouhi when she tries to figure out what she’s gotten herself into, and you can tell that Mojdeh isn’t a woman who wants to explain herself to anyone.
Eventually, though, the situation takes some form: Mojdeh is convinced that Morteza is having an affair, and suspects of him of carrying on with their next-door neighbor, the divorced Simine (Pantea Bahram). As a way to make some money, Simine runs a salon out of the apartment she’s renting, and Mojdeh is not only trying to figure out whether Simine is having an affair with Morteza, but is also trying to get her evicted for good measure. She’s clearly falling apart, and when she tasks Rouhi with spinning a lie about who she is and going into Simine’s apartment to spy for her, Rouhi should say no. But she doesn’t.
And so Rouhi is pulled in, and her role in this scenario keeps pivoting: First she’s Mojdeh’s spy, then she’s Simine’s confidante, then she’s Morteza’s partner in crime. How Rouhi maneuvers this situation puts her in increasingly tight binds, and how her half-truths, lies, and realizations affect everyone around her—Mojdeh, Morteza, Simine, and Mojdeh’s and Morteza’s young son Amir-Ali—drive the forward progress of the film.
It would be easy to write Fireworks Wednesday off as a melodrama, but Farhadi builds it so methodically and so intentionally, that you get a sense for every character, and every revelation hits harder than the last. Almost everything you need to know about Rouhi you get from her first interaction with her fiancé, when she disregards his advice and lets her chador get caught in up in his motorbike wheel—she’s almost caused them to crash, but the situation is out of her hands, and she can carry on just fine afterward. She’s a people-pleaser, but she doesn’t fully understand these people, doesn’t get the dynamics of Mojdeh and Morteza and Simine, and yet she inserts herself anyway. At the end of the day, she gets to walk away. But what about what she’s done to them?
What strikes deepest, though, is the film’s acute understanding of modern domestic life, of all the ways husbands and wives are pulled together and apart, are judged by those around them, are required to find refuge in each other. There are very particularly Iranian elements to Fireworks Wednesday, of course, like the holiday setting and the sneaking sense of chaos that builds through the constant noise of fireworks going off in the background and the numerous bonfires that break out throughout the city at night, or the fact that Mojdeh dons another woman’s chador to spy on her husband, thinking he won’t recognize her under the bulky covering, or that Morteza’s work-related headache is finding a way to hide the hair of a 7-year-old girl appearing in a commercial, because to see it would be sinful. You need some sense of Iranian culture to be able to grasp the relevance of these details.
But so much of Fireworks Wednesday would apply to any partnership, and that stuff resonates, too, with dialogue that cuts to the heart of the film. “We’re no longer children,” one character says to another. “You’ll get used to it,” someone says of heartache. “You don’t lie just because,” someone says while accusing another. But isn’t adulthood about unresolved yearning, and unwanted responsibility, and the crafting of fantasies to escape reality? That’s the truth being offered in the contemplative Fireworks Wednesday, and it’s another worth-seeing puzzle piece in Farhadi’s worldview.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Guttenbergs