by Matt Levine
If you’re wondering why Asghar Farhadi’s acclaimed third feature, Fireworks Wednesday, hasn’t gotten an American release until now—ten years after its original release in Iran—the answer is unsurprising, if depressingly familiar: money. In 2006, Asghar Farhadi was a less recognized name to international movie lovers than Jafar Panahi, whose Offside was released the same year. So while Fireworks Wednesday’s original American release was limited to the festival circuit, its belated distribution ten years later—after A Separation (2011) and The Past (2013) have cemented Farhadi as one of modern cinema’s great humanist filmmakers—amends that mistake, proving why Farhadi deserves to be mentioned alongside his compatriots Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami (though his style, tone, and subjects often differ markedly from them).
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Producer: Jamal Sadatian
Writers: Asghar Farhadi, Mani Haghighi
Cinematographer: Hossein Jafarian
Editor: Hayedeh Safiyari
Music: Peyman Yazdanian
Cast: Hamid Farrokhnazhed, Hediyeh Tehrani, Taraneh Alidoosti, Pantea Bahram, Sahar Dolatshahi, Hooman Seyadi, Matin Heydarnia
Premiere: February 8, 2006 - Iran
US Theatrical Release: March 16, 2016
US Distributor: Grasshopper Film
Named after the Iranian holiday Chahar Shanbeh Suri—the Iranian New Year’s Eve, when revelers explode firecrackers on the streets to comemmorate lost spirits and the passing of time--Fireworks Wednesday might also refer to the emotional firecrackers that go off among a group of families in Tehran. We see much of the film through the eyes of Rouhi (Taraneh Alidoosti), who is overjoyed at her upcoming wedding (though she and her fiancé have no money) and seems to greet every new person with wide-open curiosity and a beaming smile.
It’s this buoyant personality that allows her to enter the upper-class families of a Tehran apartment building, one of which has hired her as a temporary maid so she can help pay for the wedding. As soon as she steps foot in her employers’ lush apartment, she knows she’s entering a battleground: the husband, Morteza (Hamid Farrokhnezhad), has a bandaged hand from punching a glass window the night before, and all of the furniture has been covered in plastic wrap in preparation for the family’s upcoming move to Dubai (or is it just a temporary escape?). His wife, Mojdeh (Hediyeh Tehrani), appears mentally unstable and obsessed with the possibility that her husband is cheating on her, but her constant state of wounded distrust might be the result of an unhappy marriage we cannot fully understand.
Soon, Mojdeh enlists Rouhi’s help in determining her husband’s infidelity, sending her as a spy into her neighbor’s beauty salon. At first Rouhi seems to enjoy this play-acting—she knows real emotions are at stake but seems to relish uncovering the secrets these people conceal—but the story becomes increasingly urgent with a late revelation that throws everything we knew beforehand into question (not unlike A Separation or Farhadi’s fourth film, About Elly, which was also rereleased in American theaters last year). Fireworks Wednesday often plays like a mystery, but the clues and solutions are hidden within quick lines of dialogue and telling human gestures; as usual, Farhadi’s plotting is meticulous and precisely paced, revealing only as much as he needs to in a given scene (part of the credit also goes to Farhadi’s co-screenwriter, the director Mani Haghighi).
As in About Elly and A Separation, the social commentary is woven into the characters’ interactions: Farhadi’s films can’t be called politically-minded, but through these heated conflicts we come to know a modern Iranian community and its multiple tensions. Rouhi comes from a poor family and needs to take the bus or taxi across Tehran to get to her employers’ lush apartment building; for her, saving up for a wedding dress is a huge purchase, a symbol for the long, happy married life she thinks awaits her. The arguments, custody battles, and divorces of the wealthier families she comes to know shakes her optimistic core and clouds her assumptions about the people who live many stories up in high-rising apartment complexes. The social context here is less politicized than in A Separation and less gendered than in About Elly, but that doesn’t lessen the emotional impact of the characters’ crises and their subtly shifting attitudes towards the people around them.
Although Fireworks Wednesday put Farhadi on the international cinematic map, this was still a very low budget endeavor, which is reflected in the powerfully simple production. The film stock is both brightly colored and murky at times (which shouldn’t be read as a criticism), the camerawork often consists of static shots, and the sound design is rooted in realism, picking up the cacophony of fireworks in the nearby streets. Such a minimal aesthetic approach fits Farhadi’s observant tone perfectly; as often happens with “realistic” movies shot on a small budget with imperfect equipment, the world it evokes seems realer than reality.
With Farhadi’s first two features (Dancing in the Dust and Beautiful City) and a slew of television and theatre work behind him, one almost hopes that this rush of rereleased material keeps coming. As his work continues to gain greater exposure in the US, the growing career of a master filmmaker comes into sharper focus, detailing how Farhadi’s subtlety, complexity, ambition, and narrative precision have matured over the years, all the time wedded to characters whose pains and joys are universal. His preternatural grasp of plotting and cinematography has led critics to compare him to Rohmer and Renoir, or among his own countrymen to the pained humanism of Mohsen Makhmalbaf. But the movie that most often came to mind while I watched Fireworks Wednesday was Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D., with its themes of class inequality and touching insistence on treating every single character with the respect and sensitivity they deserve. Most importantly, both De Sica and Farhadi’s films share an ambivalence about life summed up in two undeniable truths less contradictory than they seem: life is painful, life is beautiful.