Tomorrow is chahar shanbeh souri, the fire festival that marks the start of the Persian New Year. Iranians around the world will be celebrating by building bonfires in the street (or a parking lot) and jumping over them in a cleansing ritual that goes back thousands of years. In Iran, the air will be crackling with fireworks, everything from simple sparklers to home-made cherry bombs.
Chahar Shanbeh Souri (Fireworks Wednesday) is also the title of a 2006 movie, written and directed by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, which won a Golden Hugo award at the Chicago International Film Festival. Set in present-day Tehran, the film tells the tale of three marriages: one about to begin, a second recently ended, and a third on the verge of exploding as dramatically as the fireworks sparking in the night air.
The story opens with Rouhi flirting with her fiancé as they ride into town on his motorcycle. Rouhi has taken a job cleaning houses to help pay for their wedding, which is to take place two days later. But when Rouhi arrives for her current assignment in a middle-class Tehran neighborhood, she finds her employers, Mozhdeh and Morteza, embroiled in a bitter domestic dispute. Mozhdeh is convinced that her husband is having an affair with their next-door neighbor, Simine. Rouhi, whose head is filled with happy dreams of her own impending marital bliss, now gets caught up in a bewildering domestic maelstrom.
As the day drags on, Mozhdeh uses Rouhi to spy on Simine by posing as a customer in the suspected mistress’s beauty salon. At first, the maid is intrigued by her new assignment—spying is certainly a lot more fun than scrubbing floors, and she gets a brand new set of plucked eyebrows for her wedding as a bonus. But in her naïveté, Rouhi flounders in a confusing series of subterfuges, unable to keep all the lies and half-truths straight, until she ends up making a bad situation worse.
What makes this movie so appealing is the way it reaches past the political headlines and stereotypes of Iran’s conservative religious society and tells a compelling story of humans in conflict. Relationships are complicated, no less so in Tehran than anywhere else. And when they go wrong, everyone gets caught up in the conflagration: neighbors who put up with the couple’s constant fighting night after night; the relatives whose help and advice is rejected; and most heartbreakingly, the embattled couple’s young son, Amir Ali, who fears that his world is falling apart around his little ears.
The layers to this story make it impossible to take anything at face value. Are Mozhdeh’s fears real, or is she engaged in a personal meltdown of her own? When she tells Rouhi (a woman she’s known only for a few hours) to pick up Amir Ali from school while Mozhdeh takes a nap, I have to wonder if the mother is thinking clearly. But then Mozhdeh “borrows” Rouhi’s chador so she can spy on Morteza at work, believing the voluminous cloak is the perfect disguise. The ruse doesn’t work, and I begin to believe the suspected adultery is a figment of Mozhdeh’s troubled mind.
Morteza is no less three-dimensional. He seems to be the kind, long-suffering husband, entirely innocent of the adultery he’s being accused of. But when he unloads his troubles on his friend at work, complaining at how much he suffers under his wife’s irrational outbursts, he comes across as insincere and self-indulgent, and I start wondering if he really is cheating on his wife. So is the situation entirely of Mozhdeh’s making? I‘m filled with doubt, despite the fact that I’d reached the very same conclusion only moments earlier.
As for Simine, is she really the sweet divorcee whose husband left her for another woman? She gives Rouhi sisterly advice on the girl’s pending marriage then refuses to accept payment for the eyebrow trim. But when her ex drops their daughter off for a visit, he sits all night in the car, gazing with puppy-dog eyes at Simine’s lit window, and I wonder which of them is the injured party in this failed relationship.
Like many Iranian movies, Fireworks Wednesday does not have a firm resolution. The question of adultery is cleared up, but we never see what the characters do about it. Will Morteza and Mozhdeh resume their battle in the morning or will one of them have the courage to pack up and leave? Will Rouhi and her man live happily ever after, or will their marriage eventually dissolve into strife as Morteza’s and Mozhdeh’s did?
This lack of resolution doesn’t bother me, for ultimately this is not a story about happy endings—or tragic ones, either. It is about the choices that people make to either live in harmony or render each other’s lives a living hell.