We gave it an A-
Over the past few years, the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has become one of the most quietly powerful voices in world cinema. Best known for 2011’s devastating marital drama A Separation (which won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar) and its equally exquisite 2013 follow-up, The Past, Farhadi blends stunning naturalism with a hint of voyeurism. He gives audiences an intimate glimpse inside a society that’s largely unknown and closed off to those of us in the West. Now, with the ascent of his reputation on the world stage, his older films are trickling into arthouses stateside, proving that his unique gift was in full bloom long before his win at the Academy Awards. Last year, we were treated to the mysteriously spellbinding About Elly – a film from 2009 that just barely missed my year-end Top 10 list (it was No. 11). Now comes Fireworks Wednesday, the director’s wonderfully humane and insightful look at romance, betrayal, and jealousy from 2006. I only wish Farhadi had a dozen more movies just like these that were ready for export back in Tehran. Alas…
Set during the Persian New Year, Fireworks Wednesday opens with a young engaged-to-be-married couple riding on a motorcycle. They’re blissfully happy and in love, eager to start their new lives as husband and wife. The bride-to-be, Rouhi, is played by one of the stars of About Elly, Taraneh Alidousti, whose wide-open smile and beaming, childlike innocence are like a balm for the soul. Rouhi works for a housekeeping agency and is assigned to clean up the recently renovated apartment of an upscale Tehran couple, played by Hedieh Tehrani and Hamid Farokh-Nejad. Before she even steps foot inside their home, she gets an initiation into what a buzzing hive of busybody gossip the couple’s apartment complex is. The couple is about to leave for a vacation to Dubai, but all is not well in their marriage. The wife, Tehrani’s Mojdeh, suspects her husband, Farokh-Nejad’s Morteza, of having an affair. And she quickly enlists her naïve new housekeeper into some sleuthing.
Powerless to say no (and maybe slightly curious about this heady intrigue herself), Rouhi plays ball, stealthily pressing a recently divorced woman living next door for hints of deceit. But she turns out to be a not-very-good spy. Farhadi’s intrigue doesn’t feel like the stuff of a Hollywood thriller. It’s more realistic, more pedestrian than that – which gives it a real ring of low-key emotional truth. The more Rouhi learns about the secrets and lies in this well-off couple’s marriage, the more she begins to subtly question her own upcoming vows. Is this what she’s in for?
As the slow-burning film—set over a single day–turns up the heat, the bang-bang sound of New Year’s firecrackers is a constant presence in the background. It’s like a white-noise omen that some horrible truth is about to detonate and be exposed. It isn’t the subtlest motif, but Farhadi’s message is clear: Even the most idyllic-seeming marriage is nothing more or less than a series of landmines to be skirted with the utmost care. A–