Nobody emerges unscathed — least of all the audience — from Vahid Jalilvand’s highly effective, deeply unpleasant “Beyond the Wall,” a morbidly violent allegory for the effects of state-sponsored trauma on the individual that places contemporary Iranian society somewhere on the map between the sixth and seventh circles of hell. A strange combination of intricate, almost sci-fi-inflected psychological thriller, splenetic social-breakdown broadside and two-hander (torture) chamber drama, it is an exercise in bravura filmmaking applied to a story so relentlessly grim you might wish it were a little less well-made, giving you an excuse to look away. In his 2017 film “No Date No Signature” (which won Best Director and Best Actor in Venice’s Horizons sidebar), Jalilvand pictured a stratified society teetering on the edge of legality and morality; here, however, it has toppled entirely into the abyss. The only way is down, and the filmmaker is bringing you with it.
These uncompromising intentions are signalled by an opening salvo that would surely be any other film’s brutalizing emotional nadir, as we’re introduced to Ali (“No Date, No Signature” star Navid Mohammadzadeh) in the commission of an attempted suicide. No mere “cry for help,” it is not just the act itself but the manner he has chosen that is shocking: In the dripping damp of a dingy bathroom, Ali wraps a soaking T-shirt around his head, ties a plastic bag over that and shoves his battered hands down behind the shower pipe, effectively cuffing his own arms behind him while he screams and suffocates. The scene is such a trial to witness, it’s possible to miss the brief, disorienting, semi-subliminal inserts where it appears the violence is being done to him by someone else — or to think you have imagined them.
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It is only an insistent pounding on his front door that brings Ali back from the brink. Breaking the pipe and tearing off his plastic shroud, he shuffles, gasping, dripping, broken, to answer it. The men at the door inform him that a woman wanted for a heinous crime has fled custody and was last spotted on the fire escape of his forbiddingly enormous apartment building. They suspect him — for some reason more than all the other residents — of harboring her. Ali shoos the men away, but we know that the woman, Leila (Diana Habibi), has indeed infiltrated his home and is cowering beneath a countertop, hands clasped over her bleeding, chapped lips to stifle her sobs. Ali has not seen her, because he does not see anything much. His failing eyesight is not just a temporary symptom of his recent near-death encounter, but a condition brought on from an earlier trauma, and it is degenerating faster than it should, as Ali refuses to use the treatments prescribed by sympathetic doctor Nariman (Amir Aghaee) on his frequent house calls.
It takes a painfully long time — and rather too many sequences of Ali feeling his way down his apartment’s yeasty, peeling walls, lighting cigarettes with palsied hands and peering at a mysterious letter he’s received — but eventually, as must happen, Ali discovers Leila. She is, and remains, terrified throughout but in Ali she has lucked upon the one man in this whole building (perhaps even the one man in all of Iran) who wants, obscurely, to help her. It might be because, given his initial state, he has little to lose. But perhaps it is something else, something like a shot at redemption for the unknown sins of a past that more frequently forces itself into the present as Ali and Leila’s predicament worsens.
Leila’s backstory is equally harsh, and emerges more through dislocating flashbacks than through her own words, which are usually lost in all the weeping and keening. A gathering of workers demanding their unpaid wages had turned into a riot which was brutally suppressed by the police. In the chaos, Leila, who is prone to epileptic seizures when stressed, became separated from her little son Taha, and was subsequently arrested. Hysterical with worry for her abandoned child, Leila indirectly causes an accident and runs from the police, who are now out in disproportionate force, determined to reclaim her.
Mohammadzadeh and Habibi are deeply committed to roles that can seem underwritten, until the final reveal — which is simultaneously intensely despairing and oddly sentimental — makes a kind of sense of their fugue-state sketchiness. But the real star of this particular horror show might just be Alireza Alavian’s remorselessly assaultive sound design, which is particularly impressive in bridging the trauma-based time-loops that mark the transitions between Ali’s trapped reality and his scarcely less trapped imagination. Kudos also to the make-up department’s overworked bruising and bleeding coordinators, and to DP Adib Sobhani, in whose scuzzy, shaky, handheld camerawork “Beyond the Walls” feels as ragged and sharp as razor wire, and just about as lovable.
The tricksiness of the finale, however, does somewhat undercut the seriousness of the film’s more intriguing ideas about how a prison made of concrete can never so comprehensively constrain us as the prisons of the body and the mind. Ali’s failing eyesight, his nerve-damaged hands, his stooped posture and proliferating scars, as well as Leila’s epilepsy and her son’s muteness, can be read as a fleshy physiological allegory for state violence and oppression, as damage to the body social manifesting in damage to actual bodies. But the metaphor only really works up to the point when Jalilvand’s overly complicated plotting comes round on itself. In any case, after more than two hours of seizures, crashes, riots, shootouts, beatings, and endlessly relived trauma, some of the finer points of the movie’s philosophy may escape you, just as you, too, are longing for escape.
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