By Michael Scoular
Hours before leaving for Evin Prison to begin a five-year sentence, filmmaker Mahnaz Mohammadi shot a three-minute video. “I’ve got great anger in me,” she said, calling prison “a place where you are sentenced to go, even if you don’t deserve it.” Though there were petitions and a statement from Cannes, nothing effectively changed, and Mohammadi’s career was stalled. Son-Mother, a relentless, emotionally draining triptych of separation and punishment, is her first film after an early release two years into her stay. You could say it’s an attempt to show the way that the prisoner’s mindset is all over Tehran. In the film’s first half, Leila (Raha Khodayari)—a widow under threat of losing her son to a marriage tradition, a scab at work out of fear of losing her factory job, and a mother without the resources to support her young daughter—is presented as an object, from which time and service is demanded. The second half shows her son (Mahan Nasiri), post-separation, stranded in a series of abusive environments, from a boarding school (that he subsequently escapes from) to a pedophile’s car.
This isn’t a film about details, whether of the factories, the schools, or even of the family whose lives are at stake: Mohammadi has instead devised a kind of conceptual trap, pressurized with full-on miserablism from beginning to end. The screenplay, by Mohammad Rasoulof (Manuscripts Don’t Burn), leaps over major events and neatly parallels the vulnerable protagonists’ trials, to the point where there’s nothing new to show past the opening scenes (dehumanizing, one-sided conversations about work and marriage proposals); a fresh manipulative group of villains simply picks up where the previous one leaves off, like a shape-shifter in a horror movie (albeit one depicted in dull, low-lit master shots and diegetic sound). It’s easier to imagine the difficulty the film took to make, and, still ahead, to distribute in Iran, more than any challenge it might pose to a festival audience.