Iranian director Vahid Jalilvand’s second film No Date, No Signature became Iran’s submission in 2019 for the Oscars’ Best Film Not in the English Language category. It would be a miracle if his latest, Venice competition entrant Beyond the Wall, gleaned the same honor, not because it wouldn’t be a worthy choice — it’s a ravaging, powerful work. It’s just that it’s impossible to imagine the Iranian authorities would approve submitting it.
Overtly critical of the repressive state apparatus, especially its capriciously cruel and violent police forces and merciless justice system, this feature played in Venice without Iranian government support and no doubt places Jalilvand in the ranks of audacious cinema dissidents, along with currently imprisoned filmmakers Jafar Panahi (whose latest No Bears also plays Venice this year), Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Aleahmad.
Beyond the Wall
The Bottom Line
Powerfully smashes the walls of realism.
For this twisty study of guilt and self-sacrifice, Jalilvand has reteamed with acclaimed actor Navid Mohammadzadeh, who co-starred in Jalilvand’s No Date as well as Saeed Roustayi’s recent Cannes competitor Leila’s Brothers. First met trying to kill himself with a wet shirt and a plastic bag in a concrete shower stall, his body covered in bruises and squinting through near-blind eyes, Mohammadzadeh’s lead character Ali pauses his suicide attempt to answer an aggressive knock at his door. It seems Ali lives in an apartment alone, where he’s struggling to cope with his recent loss of vision. But throughout the film he has a steady stream of visits, mostly from a gruff but sympathetic doctor (Amir Aghaee), a meddlesome building manager (Danial Kheirikhah) and a menacing police inspector (Saeed Dakh). The latter is looking for a mysterious woman being hunted by the authorities whom they suspect is hiding in Ali’s building.
It transpires that while answering the door, the woman, Leila (Diana Habibi, fantastic at channeling unhinged desperation) did indeed slip into Ali’s apartment through an unlocked back door, having ascended up a spiral staircase. The staircase is not only an effective fire escape, but also an obvious metaphor for the film’s spiral narrative, which keeps circling back in time to show earlier events from a different point of view.
Terrified for her life and nearly hysterical with worry about her young son, from whom she got separated in some kind of kerfuffle, Leila hides in Ali’s apartment in the shadows where he can’t see her and tries to call a friend for help. Ali can only sense her presence at first, but he leaves out food and gently calls out to her, trying to gain her trust. It would certainly be handy to have someone read the letters for him that keep getting slipped under his door that he can barely decipher. Eventually, Leila awakens from an epileptic fit to the sound of him playing back her voice messages, and slowly the events that brought her to his rooms are revealed.
Jalilvand started out as a theater director before moving into TV and then film, so the stagey feel of the scenes inside Ali’s apartment might seem like a deliberate call back to his earlier career at first, or a budget-saving use of a confined space. However, as the film goes on it gets progressively stranger in terms of time and space, with characters, especially Leila, slipping out one door and reappearing again moments later, having seemingly slipped back into the past, a change of reality that Ali just rolls. with.
Meanwhile, the stage, as it were, expands to assimilate an outdoor scene by a closed factory where Leila came some time ago to collect her wages with other protesting workers, her mute son by her side. They get separated when a riot breaks out and the police started randomly arresting whomever they can grab. The noise of the knocking turns out to correspond to a completely different source — the sound design throughout is eerie — and nothing is quite what it seems. Mind you, the overhead shot of Ali’s door, in degraded digital black and white like the feed for a CCTV system, is an obvious early giveaway as to what’s going on.
Powerful though the subject matter is — and brave for all involved considering that a number of taboo subjects are touched on, from suicide to police brutality — Jalilvand’s editing in the final stretch loses some impact with a clunkier-than-necessary pace. Perhaps the filmmakers were challenged by the near two-year process it took to complete the shooting, forcibly put on pause as they were by Mohammadzadeh catching COVID — although that may have paid off as it helps him look almost like an entirely different person, plumper and healthier, when we see him in the plot’s deep past.
Despite any minor flaws, the film’s final bravura, deeply meaningful drone shot sends it out on a literally soaring high, fitting for a work of sly, ambitious accomplishment. For the record, the film’s international title Beyond the Wall is a poor substitute for the more evocative cinematic, screenplay-style language of its original Farsi title Shab, Dakheli, Divar, which means “night, interior, wall.”
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