“It is hard for me to imagine Iranian life without tragedy,” says filmmaker and women’s rights activist Mahnaz Mohammadi while talking about her fiction feature debut Son-Mother, which had its world premiere at TIFF 2019. With a brisk and precise screenplay written by the noted Iranian auteur Mohammad Rasoulof (The White Meadows), Mohammadi’s film serves as a bleak reminder of the socially ingrained ― almost institutionalized ― form of oppression that the women and children in her country are regularly subjected to. Son-Mother is reminiscent of the humanist dramas of Jafar Panahi (who, just like Mohammadi herself, was also barred from travelling abroad and sentenced to prison for his views) and his radical critique of orthodox Iranian values and traditions, anchored by a nearly-wordless central performance from the young Mahan Nasiri, vividly reflecting the pain of having one’s fundamental rights violated and then being coerced into accepting their fate without protest.
As hinted by the title, Son-Mother revolves around Leila (Raha Khodayari), a single mother struggling to make ends meet, and her 12-year-old son. Following a worker’s strike due to mass layoffs at the factory she’s employed at, Leila risks losing her job and her only source of income to support her two children Amir (Mahan Nasiri) and the very young Munes. She avoids taking the employees’ bus to work to avoid the driver Kazem (Reza Behboodi), who is desperate to wed the widow and keeps persuading her whenever he finds a chance, leading to rumors and teasing jabs from her co-workers.
This man is obviously motivated by his infatuation, but he also takes pity on this poor woman stretching herself thin to provide for her kids, and keeps insisting the fact that he’d be legally free to help and protect her if they marry. Kazem gives Leila free rides on his bus, helps admit her sick daughter to the hospital, and even lends her money, all to show his genuine intentions and thus win her favor. However, he himself has a daughter about the same age as Amir, and societal norms would frown upon them if he were to let the two of them stay together under one roof, risking the possibility of sexual attraction between two siblings (by law if Leila is to marry Kazem).
Kazem insists that Amir must stay elsewhere for a couple or more years till his girl is engaged, and only then can he move in. Therefore, Leila keeps refusing his advances despite knowing that his offer would only make her life easier, just for the sake of her son. Yet when she finally loses her job and struggles to even buy diapers for her little daughter, she is faced with this impossible task of choosing between losing Amir and the prospect of being torn apart by poverty. With the help of a local kindly woman named Bibi (Maryam Boubani), Amir is enrolled as a deaf and dumb child at a boarding school for differently-abled kids where she works, where he must stay until Leila finds better accommodations or manages to persuade her husband to take him in.
The film is divided into two segments, looking at Iranian society and its stringent traditions through the differing perspectives of both the child and the adult woman. Curiously, the first half dealing with the mother Leila is titled ‘Son’, while the latter half following Amir’s fate is titled ‘Mother’ as if the focus here is not so much on the character whose tale unfolds in front of us but rather on the invisible presence of the other. The thought of her son Amir’s future haunts Leila and informs all her decisions constantly throughout her segment, just as the absence of his mother and his love for her defines the boy’s pitiful stay at the boarding school. Amir immerses into his new role like any seasoned method-actor would, sacrificing his voice and hearing for the greater good of his family, a transformation as disquieting to watch as it is moving.
As he determinedly fakes his way through the principal’s stern gaze, Amir’s forced silence becomes a powerful allegory for all the victims of Iran’s totalitarian regime losing their freedom of speech to the country’s rigid moral and religious code. By getting us to sympathize with this helpless child being punished for no crime of his, Rasoulof and Mohammadi encourage us to feel for the countless women being stripped of their basic human rights in a society where the laws and customs are all deeply-rooted in patriarchal values. The cinematographic writing ― though mostly very utilitarian ― is neat and precise, making excellent use of close-ups on the young Nasiri’s impassive face showing an acquired maturity far beyond his years.
Despite being a feminist-minded narrative, Rasoulof and Mohammadi have eschewed melodrama by not vilifying the male figure Kazem, resulting in a nuanced portrayal of gender dynamics which is committed to realism. Rather we see that Kazem means well but is almost just as helpless as Leila when it comes to going against the grain of socially-accepted practices, which keep him from wedding the woman he loves. As Mohammadi says, “We have become tools of our own oppression,” Son-Mother brings to life the various hypocrisies and ironies resulting from decades of such unchecked self-imposed oppression across Iran. It might have benefited by spending a little more time with Amir and Leila together, firmly establishing their relationship before breaking it apart, though it is precisely their tragic absence from each other’s lives that largely contributes to the film’s emotional resonance.