(The Middleburg Film Festival ran October 19-22, 2023 in Middleburg, Virginia. HtN Lead Critic Chris Reed will be providing his usual excellent coverage like this movie review of The Persian Version. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Maryam Keshavarz’s semi-autobiographical film The Persian Version comes from its ability to manage vastly disparate tones and make the combination so often work. From ribald humor to pathos rooted in genuine hardship and tragedy, writer/director Keshavarz (Viper Club) mixes contrasting scenes into a flavorful cinematic stew that proves mostly filling. Her energetic cast, jaunty score and vibrant production design all add to the satisfying meal.
We open on central protagonist Leila (Layla Mohammadi, Paramount+’s Special Ops: Lioness series), walking across the Brooklyn Bridge circa 2000s-era New York in a burkatini, on her way to a costume party (she will win first place). There, she seduces a drag queen … sorry, he’s just an actor playing the lead in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, who has come in that outfit. But thereafter he will be known by this early moniker.
From that early scene of sexual freedom, we soon learn a lot more about Leila and her (somewhat, upon occasion, as it suits them) traditional Iranian family, led by matriarch Shireen (Niousha Noor, Netflix’s Kaleidoscope series). There’s a long-running feud between mother and her only daughter (with 8 brothers), centered around Leila’s lesbianism. She was, in fact, married to a woman for a while. But what about the “drag queen”? Doesn’t that make her bisexual. Let’s not focus on labels.
Leila is a filmmaker looking to mine her life issues into a powerful script. So far, that’s not happening. But she tells of her longstanding worries about identity, too American to feel at home back in Iran, and too Iranian to truly feel at home in the United States. She suffers from the rift with mom, especially since dad has a bad heart and is now bedridden in a hospital.
It will only be when Leila learns the “Persian version” of Shireen’s story, courtesy of her loving grandmother, that she comes closer to understanding the woman who raised her. In turn, circumstances will force Shireen to drop her anger towards Leila. An unexpected pregnancy helps (thank you, Hedwig!).
Keshavarz takes the viewer on an extended flashback into Shireen’s youth and early married life, before the Islamic Revolution tore her country apart and “divorced” (Leila’s word) Iran from America, with whom it had a long relationship. Discovering not only the truth about the trauma that propelled the family West, but also about the incredible hard work that brought Shireen some modicum of wealth in her new country, gives Leila a newfound respect for mom. Now if only Shireen could return the favor.
Not all of the movie gels, though even when there are awkward moments (courtesy of some forced humor and performances), the ultimate thrust of the narrative delivers engaging results. Managing dramedy well is a delicate task. Keshavarz succeeds where it counts.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
2023 Middleburg Film Festival; Maryam Keshavarz; The Persian Version movie review