A Film a Week - Beyond the Wall / Shab, Dakheli, Divar

 previously published on Asian Movie Pulse

If they do not want to be persecuted by the state, while keeping their chances at the international film festival circuit, the Iranian filmmakers must not be too open in their criticism towards the state policies. Carefully inserted metaphors are usually the way to go for covering the tracks and Vahid Jalilvand has so far managed to do so with his previous films, “Wednesday, May 9” (2015) and “No Date, No Signature” (2017) which both premiered at Venice Horizons section. He tries to do the same with his newest effort “Beyond the Wall”, which premiered at the main competition of last year’s Venice. After a tour of festivals like Toronto, Busan, Hamburg and Göteborg, it was shown at the competition of Belgrade International Film Festival, where we caught it.

When we meet our protagonist, Ali (Navid Mohammadzadeh, repeating the collaboration with Jalilvand after playing the main role in the filmmaker’s previous effort), he is in such a desperate state that he tries to commit suicide in his spartan apartment in a very brutal and very creative fashion involving a soaking-wet T-shirt over his face sealed by a nylon bag, with his hands blocked by the bathroom pipes. He is interrupted by the knock on the door: the police are looking for a fugitive woman that came into the building and might be hiding in Ali’s apartment. The thing is, Ali is almost completely blind and therefore can have little to no interaction to the outer world, apart from the visits by his doctor (the veteran Amir Aghaee) who brings him much-needed medicine Ali is reluctant to use and even cigarettes, and the sudden visits by the building manager and the police inspector who is interested in letters he receives from a certain woman he helped in the past, but is unable to read them.

The fugitive woman in question, Leila (the newcoming Diana Habibi), is actually hiding in his apartment after taking part in the workers’ protest that turned sour when the police intervened. She is looking for a place to take a breather and to organize the search for her son that got lost in the riot. Could the two people in peril help each other once they meet? And is everything exactly as it seems in Jalilvand’s film?

The ingenious premise would have made for a killer short film, but in “Beyond the Wall”, it is stretched to the demanding runtime of over two hours. The main problem, however, is not how long it is, but how it is expanded to such a format, as Jalilvand has prepared some flashbacks, sharp plot twists, red herrings and the final packaging that feels nonsensical up to the point when everything falls to its place too conveniently.

Directing-wise, the filmmaker makes the best of the three major locations he uses (Ali’s apartment that looks like a place lifted straight from the apocalypse – kudos to the production designer Keyvan Moghaddam, the riot in front of the factory and the police van in which Leila is driven after she was arrested) and the instrument of flashback, offering a couple a long ones and several shorter in order to play with the perspective and the point of view, ultimately confusing the viewer to the point of disorientation. The technical components are employed properly, as Adib Sobhani’s cinematography uses the typical Iranian traits of hand-held shaking only when necessary, favouring the more controlled steadicam approach, and the filmmaker’s own editing that is occasionally rough, but nevertheless rhythmic.

Jalilvand shows less craft in directing actors that are both kept locked in an elevated emotional register playing the thinly-characterized characters that only make sense in the end, after the series of twists and turns. Navid Mohammadzadeh fares a bit better off, since his character is more grounded, and also because he is a seasoned actor, while Diana Habibi’s performance sometimes goes in the hysterical mode.

With “Beyond the Wall”, Vahid Jalilvand certainly tries too much, both in the sense of genre that swings between drama and quasi-thriller, while still remaining cautious and avoiding more open social criticism. But even so, the film is worth seeing once.

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