Nargess, 1992

An indistinguishable man and woman run frantically through a dimly lit street as they attempt to outrun a police car that is doggedly pursuing them. Separating near a dead-end alley, the unidentified woman – unable to keep pace – hides behind a mound of garbage while the man, Adel (Abolfazl Poorarab), heads for a busy emergency room as the police close in, resuming their chase on foot. While attempting to disguise his appearance in the restroom of the clinic, he spots an opportune cover when a young woman, Nargess (Atefeh Razavi) awkwardly struggles to escort her ailing father into the bathroom. Insinuating himself into their company by lending his assistance, he hands over his incriminating burglary satchel to the unwitting Nargess and subsequently escapes detection from the police dragnet by accompanying the two into a taxicab under the pretense of concern for the old man. Captivated by the demure and beautiful Nargess, Adel is determined to marry her despite his unemployment and disreputable lifestyle, believing that his desire alone to start anew and lead a respectable married life is sufficient to overcome the temptation to revert to his former life of crime. In preparation for the marriage proposal, Adel visits his estranged mother in the hopes of arranging a proper family introduction, only to be summarily rejected and driven away by her. With Adel disowned and unable to find a family advocate to broker the marriage, his accomplice and former lover, a strong-willed and pragmatic older lady thief named Afagh (Farimah Farjami), takes advantage of his desperation and proposes an insidious offer – she will present herself as Adel’s mother and corroborate his eligibility in exchange for the continuation of their affair and criminal partnership after the marriage – a dangerously short sighted solution that Adel capriciously, and tragically, accepts.

Nargess is a haunting, indelible, and understatedly provocative examination of crime, poverty, and marginalization in a culturally ingrained, codified society. A filmmaker whose background in cinema – like that of compatriot Abbas Kiarostami – was from documentary work, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad retains the acuity and relevance of nonfiction filmmaking to create a compelling fictional story that, nevertheless, captures the underlying reality of the ingrained socio-economic disparity endemic in the post-revolution, patriarchal society of contemporary Iran. By illustrating the immature and selfish Adel’s feeble attempt at conformity and a ‘normal’ life by marrying outside of his outcast, criminal circle (a lawless life represented by Afagh) and into a ‘respectable’ – or more appropriately, socially acknowledged – lower class (an impoverished existence represented by the humble Nargess), Bani-Etemad illustrates the deeply rooted, rigid traditionalism that leads to a cycle of exclusion and repression. Narratively, the insidious mutualism between reinforced outmoded customs (resulting from the nation’s return to fundamentalism with the Islamic Revolution) and the social mobility afforded by the more secular pursuit of wealth and power, is reflected in the figuratively incestuous relationship between Adel and Afagh (the mentor who poses as her lover’s mother), in the seemingly endless bureaucracy that Nargess repeatedly faces (her father’s pension, the parole board, the employment bureau), and also in the strange interrelation that develops among the three characters as a result of Adel’s insincerity and indecision. In the end, the titular Nargess is the not the name of the innocent heroine, but the embodiment of an elusive ideal to a marginalized people: a human struggle to find personal balance between cultural values and economic survival.

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