‘The Seed of the Sacred Fig’ Review: Profoundly Brave Film Captures the Struggle of Iran’s People

Separating a work of art from the circumstances of its production would be a fool’s errand when writing about “The Seed of the Sacred Fig” — director Mohammad Rasoulof simply wouldn’t allow it.

How could he, when the Iranian director shot this film in secret, fresh out of his second stint in prison? How could he, when the regime that charged him with sedition also tried to block this Cannes Film Festival premiere? How could he, when he had to flee his country and a new eight-year prison sentence, with lashings this time, in order to walk the red carpet holding photos of all his actors who did not have such luck?

For all those reasons and more, Rasoulof’s screening marked the standout event of this festival, leaving no heart untouched. But make no mistake, should the jurors choose to award “The Seed of the Sacred Fig,” they will above all be celebrating a standout (if somewhat didactic) work of art. It threads those wider circumstances into its text.

Blazing with sober force and white-hot rage, “The Seed of the Sacred Fig” finds little use for subtlety — but then, these are hardly subtle times. Instead, Rasoulof channels both the vigor of Iranian youth protesting their repressive state and the violence said state enacts on those who dare to stand up into an allegorical thriller that rarely leaves a middle-class family home.

At the top of the heap is paterfamilias Iman (Misagh Zare), a civil servant equally devout to God and to the state, which no doubt helps under his regime’s theocratic bent. Two decades into a middling career, the lawyer is offered a promotion and made investigating judge. It’s a lofty title belying a mindless task rubberstamping edicts already decided by the higher up. Though mindless, the job carries a substantial moral weight — most of these edicts are death sentences, after all — leaving the once gregarious family man ever more taciturn, paranoid and pinched.

At least he can count on wife Najmeh (Soheila Golestani), who polices the home with the same fervor as the Revolutionary Guard out on the streets. Iman’s rise in stature brings a commensurate rise in attention, so it falls to Najmeh to keep everyone in line. That means teenage daughters Rezvan and Sana (Mahsa Rostami and Setarah Maleki, two adult actors aged down given the inherent danger of participating in this film) must remain homebound while youthful revolt erupts just outside the frame. Still, one needn’t wonder where the girls’ sympathies lie.

Structured as a morality play, the film move through three distinct acts. First, we focus on Sadaf (Niousha Akhshi), a schoolgirl friend freer to protest and less protected when Iman’s agency cracks down. The house becomes a refuge Sadaf returns to with a face full of buckshot, and a prison when the girl predictably disappears, leaving her friends powerless to save her. We then fixate on Iman’s gun — a talisman of his state-authorized power and omen of his own precarity once the firearm goes missing. If act one brings the youth revolt indoors, act two brings the Revolutionary Tribunal.

Growing ever more paranoid and acutely aware of the prison sentence he would face should he report the missing firearm, Iman brings his work home, putting his family on trial as a last-ditch effort to find the culprit and save face. Longtime friends turn into ruthless interrogators as the family unit eats itself. Just as you wonder how much more this nearly three-hour film can wring out of a threadbare set, Iman goes and gets doxxed, forcing the family to flee for the country and setting up a fervid act three that begins with a car chase and builds to a sustained riff on “The Shining.”

For all the film’s kitchen table confrontations and outré narrative swings, it best embodies this social upheaval with symbolic visuals that, oddly enough, carry less bombast. Rasoulof doesn’t frame Sadaf’s blood-soaked hijab in close-up because he doesn’t need to — just seeing the girl casually throw it on as she walks out the door tells us all we need. When Iman finally gets himself a second gun, he points it at an enemy holding a video-recording cell phone in his other hand, showing the two main weapons in this ongoing war of attrition.

If the state can only bank on violence, the protesters — in Iran, of course, but also across college campuses closer to home and warzones still raging — have unfettered access to recording and broadcasting technologies that can counter state narratives. This discrepancy between direct and, shall we say, more mediated sources of information is one of the more interesting subjects of the film (and of contemporary life), though Rasoulof only truly explores that theme in act one.

The film’s most powerful images come by way of found-footage, interspersed throughout, depicting state repression and youth courage. If anything, the sheer act of making “The Seed of the Sacred Fig” was itself a show of profound bravery, a recognition from the filmmaker — here in Cannes as a fugitive and political refugee — that now is the time for action.

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