‘Universal Language’ Review: Matthew Rankin Channels the Best of Iranian Cinema in Absurdist Canadian Comedy

In the Canadian cities of Montreal and Winnipeg, a futile tension exists between French and English speakers — doubly silly, since the country is officially bilingual. In his gently satirical “Universal Language,” writer-director Matthew Rankin imagines a rather fanciful solution, where Farsi is now the region’s dominant tongue. Taking his cues from such Iranian classics as “Children of Heaven” and “The White Balloon,” Rankin mixes the humanism of Majid Majidi, Jafar Panahi, et al. with his own peculiar brand of comedy (as seen in the more off-the-wall “The Twentieth Century”), offering a delightful cross-cultural hybrid designed to celebrate our differences.

Though Rankin shows a genuine affection for all things Persian, the first and most obvious hiccup to his premise is that audiences don’t necessarily share his interest or his references. There’s something inherently provocative — and perhaps even triggering to some — about seeing a nondescript Canadian elementary school where the building’s name is written in Arabic script and a portrait of Métis leader (and Manitoba founder) Louis Riel hangs where the Queen once did. Has the country been invaded? Is some kind of “Civil War”-style upheaval afoot?

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No, commencing à la “Borat” (with its faux-Kazakh title cards), this absurdist comedy’s opening dedication reads “in the name of Friendship.” Once Rankin has pushed past any knee-jerk xenophobia, and audiences start to recognize a few recurring characters, it’s a cinch to embrace the film’s endearing young ensemble (mostly students from the aforementioned classroom, going about various extracurricular pursuits). While heading to santoor lessons, Negin (Rojina Esmaeili) and Nazgol (Saba Vahedyousefi) discover a 500 Riel bill frozen in the ice. “We can buy so many socks!” exclaims Nazgol. So off they go to fetch an ax from the nearby turkey dealer.

Speaking of turkeys, one of their classmates, Omid (Sobhan Javadi), needs new glasses, ever since a wild bird stole his last pair. When Omid grows up, he wants to be a tour guide, a job currently held by a man named Massoud (Pirouz Nemati), who leads small groups on walking tours of dreary Winnipeg sites (an overpass here, a forgotten briefcase there). Rankin makes the city look downright dreary, filling the frame with beige brick walls, multi-story parking structures and concrete as far as the eye can see — backdrops that recall the locations in “Playtime,” minus Jacques Tati’s charitable feel for modern architecture (vintage-looking advertising posters and parody TV spots are a nice touch).

The picture of Canada that Rankin puts forth in “Universal Language” seems unlikely to convince anyone to move to Manitoba. His take on Quebec is even less enticing, confined largely to a government office where a gluttonous bureaucrat (Danielle Fichaud in drag) devours a tray of turkey and approves a character named Mathieu Rankin’s transfer back to Winnipeg. Rankin plays “himself” here, sharing the bus ride home with a disgruntled grade-school teacher (Mani Soleymanlou) and (what else?) a highly coveted live turkey. Compared with these characters, the Iranian cast is downright polite, respectfully referring to their elders as “agha.”

Visually, DP Isabelle Stachtchenko’s blocky framing style bears more of a resemblance to Wes Anderson movies than anything out of Iran. (A store that sells nothing but Kleenex and a scene set at a defunct shopping mall would be right at home in one of Anderson’s features. Or Roy Andersson’s, for that matter.) And yet, if Rankin counts Abbas Kiarostami among his influences, this project proves he’s ready for his “Close-Up.” That’s clearly the movie Rankin had in mind when he wrote himself into the script, concocting a surreal third act in which he trades places with a Persian character. Better that than the guy who runs around dressed as a Christmas tree.

Rankin may have conceived “Universal Language” in the spirit of homage, but there’s something undeniably original about the end result. Don’t be surprised if that translates into a modest cult following and more creative ideas in the future.

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