Friday 29 November 2019

Man-marked: "Permission"

At the centre of the Iranian drama Permission sit various unyielding varieties of rules and regulations, a morass of red tape that has to be ducked under and danced around, lest it stop a person from moving altogether. As the captain of Iran's national futsal team, our heroine Afrooz (Baran Kosari) is well aware of the offside law, naturally; yet as a female subject of an Islamic republic, she also has to go through the unnatural rigmarole of covering her hair and wrist tattoo - the first inkling of a rebellious side - every time she enters the playing arena. As on the pitch, so in life: what the writer-director Soheil Beiraghi is interested in here is the space Afrooz has to move around in during her day-to-day activity. It's not much, all told, and we increasingly sense the freedom she enjoys as a charging midfield dynamo being infringed upon and shut down elsewhere. Arriving at the international departures desk ahead of the Asian Games finals, Afrooz finds the airline staff turning her away; her husband Yaser (Amir Jadidi) has forbidden her from leaving the country, as husbands still have the right to do in this part of the world. No joke; some yoke.

The film is based on actual events, yet there's a sizeable hole in the plot as it unfolds here: surely this impasse would have come up in conversation long before Afrooz hit the airport for such a big event? (It doesn't seem like the captain's first away game.) Beiraghi works up an immediacy that helps to usher us around it; Permission is the first of what I suspect will be many movies influenced by Asghar Farhadi's modern classic A Separation. As Afrooz tears off to confront her oppressor with the aim of resolving the issue, it becomes apparent how estranged she is from her other half, an explanation that papers over rather than fills that plot hole; it also becomes apparent that Beiraghi is less nuanced in his approach than Farhadi, whose viewpoint tends to emerge organically from the material. Beiraghi, for his part, is attempting to illustrate a thesis: you see that from the characterisation of Yaser, introduced mouthing platitudes in his role as a daytime TV host, later seen getting Afrooz to beg for some release ("You're mine!"), tearing up the legal agreement they come to seconds after leaving the lawyers' office, and having her evicted from her flat. I don't doubt there are men out there who get this drunk on their own power, but while sketching the basics of the couple's marriage, Permission can seem a touch rigid in its own thinking: she's good ("a national heroine", as her lawyer represents her at one point), he's bad - no, really bad; no, even worse than that - and an obstacle she has to get round to get wherever she's going. Check the VAR, and he's heading for a straight red.

That the film holds us nevertheless is in part down to committed performances. Kosari's crumpled fortitude - that of a striker who keeps running into a barrel-chested centre half, picking herself up and brushing herself down - is both touching and instructive, and Jadidi makes Yaser a proper, glowering wrong 'un: Beiraghi shows him being primped for the cameras, smirking his way through legal proceedings, and carrying on as usual even as his wife is reduced to living in her car, the sole form of mobility left open to her. This is recognisably a #MeToo-era movie, both in its suggestion that the gap between a male celebrity's media image and their off-camera behaviour is one space a wronged woman might usefully work within, and in its recognition that this might not in itself be enough to effectuate positive, lasting change. Yaser briefly becomes "the most hated man on Instagram", a handle Jadidi wears almost too well - no performer is currently in greater need of a Mr. Right role in a light romcom - but the film remains clear-eyed about the limitations of a hashtag. More revealing yet is how this one stand-off opens up a series of faultlines: between the captain and her manager, who has her own archaic ideas of how a woman should conduct herself, and between the captain and her national association, who'd rather speak to the husband than the wife. Contrived as it sometimes seems, this situation succeeds in exposing the conservatism prevalent in wider Iranian society, and Beiraghi even ticks off a few things Farhadi hasn't got round to: it's certainly the first Iranian film I've seen to feature a car chase, which proves as jolting and exhilarating in this context as the scooter chase in the Dardennes' The Child. A dramatic shortcut, perhaps, but there's something to be said for filmmakers revving up their realism.

Permission is now showing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon and the BFI.

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