LOS ANGELES, Dec 6, (RTRS): World premiering in Dubai, Sarra Abidi’s shattering debut feature “Benzine” tells the story of a Tunisian couple agonized by loss. They have heard nothing from or about their only son who left for Italy nine months earlier. The film will open in Tunisian cinemas on Jan. 24, 2018.
Unlike the majority of immigration stories, “Benzine” unfolds from the perspective of the people left behind. Abidi says, “Often, images are shown of young people, of small boats, of detention centers in Lampedusa, but one speaks little or not at all of those who remain in their home country. Sometimes it’s harder for those who remain.”
Abidi comes from a documentary background. While shooting a non-fiction film in southern Tunisia, the area in which she was born, the terrain inspired her.
She says, “I met sellers of smuggled gasoline on the road leading to Libya. In a landscape that is arid but beautiful, the gasoline sellers set up along the road. It’s a place where isolation and social misery run side by side, a place where young people, families are condemned to get by thanks to smuggling. I felt the urgent need to write this story and to root it in this landscape.”
While making a first feature is always demanding, Abidi encountered more challenges than most. Towards the end of post-production, her husband Ali Ben Abdallah, the film’s producer and head cameraman, died of a heart attack while working with Tarek Ben Ammar’s Laboratoires Quinta. Abidi is still struggling with that tragic loss. She confirmed to Variety: Synergy Productions is involved in legal proceedings against this laboratory.”
Abidi is now in the final phase of post-production on the full-length documentary “Chatt Essalem: the Dead Cannot Vote.”
And, she says, “I’m also writing a fictional story, of which the provisional title is “Sacre dimanche.”
On the international stage and on the festival circuit, Iranian cinema is not immediately associated with genre. The impish, richly ambiguous films of Abbas Kiarostami and the humanist social dramas of Asghar Farhadi have loomed largest in terms of defining the national canon. But while Fereydoun Jeyrani’s “Asphyxia” — a contemporary Iranian take on classic film noir and Gothic horror — doesn’t seem like an obvious hybrid at first, it ultimately makes a compelling case for itself: As the movie progresses, it becomes thrillingly clear that the cruel gender politics of those sinister genres can map themselves in mutually illuminating ways onto an inquisitive critique of female oppression in contemporary Iran.
Still, “Asphyxia” is, first and foremost, an accessible, entertainingly blackhearted, unapologetically Hitchcockian thriller, with a social subtext lurking for those who look. It also manages the tricky business of plausibly updating its throwback genres while keeping the aesthetic — here shot in whispery, shadowy black-and-white by DP Masoud Salami — firmly in the candles-in-corridors register. Creating Gothic texture and intricate noir plotting in the age of cellphones and intercoms is no easy task. But Jeyrani imagines a Tehran of thunderous snowstorms and power outages, where a phone’s torch app becomes as atmospheric a source of light as a guttering gas lamp, while the solo instruments of Karen Homayounfar’s moody score pick out nervous melodies over minimalist backgrounds.
The opening scene, a flashforward to the film’s ending, seeds this new-fangled/old-fashioned dichotomy, when Sahra (Elnaz Shakerdust), mysteriously bloodied and limping, drags herself into a spartan apartment and sits down opposite an incongruous cuckoo clock. She pulls out her cellphone, which is damaged or waterlogged, and in frustration throws it behind her, at which point the focus changes to a table in the foreground, where lurks an old-school telephone of the kind on which Humphrey Bogart might have called Lauren Bacall.
Then it’s 20 days earlier and Sahra, the efficient, watchful head nurse at a mental institution, is being introduced to Masoud (Navid Mohammadzadeh), who has just committed his rich, beautiful, catatonically unresponsive wife, Nassim (Pardis Ahmadieh). Once the women are alone, however, Nassim confides to Sahra that she’s faking insanity in order to get away from her suddenly abusive and violent husband. And so a strange dynamic evolves in which the pale-eyed, freckled Sahra, plain under her uniform’s wimple, is the Jane Eyre befriending the apparently mad wife of Masoud’s brooding, glowering Rochester — a Gothic impression born out by the hospital’s frequent power cuts, which necessitate the use of candles and oil lamps in its echoey passageways.
But Sahra may not be the timid, purehearted Joan Fontaine character she first seems, despite her crippling fear of the dark. She has surprisingly hard-headed conversations with her downstairs neighbor and friend Zohreh (a wonderful Mahaya Petrossian, in the kind of brassy, worldly role that Susan Hayward would have killed in) about marrying some old man purely for the financial security and social status it would accord her. And as she becomes more attracted to Masoud, with his hypnotic obsidian eyes, she starts to cross moral boundaries to get the life that she covets.
Part of the fun of such a boldly referential film is in spotting the allusions and relating characters to their classic archetypes. Sahra’s nyctophobia is akin to James Stewart’s fear of heights in “Vertigo,” both a character trait and a plot device. Nassim is a version of the imperilled wife from “Suspicion” or Cukor’s “Gaslight.” And with its institutional setting, offbeat love triangle dynamic and general blackhearted twistiness, the film owes its biggest debt to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Les Diaboliques,” which it honors without ever directly ripping off.