Opening today at the Film Forum in New York, “Fireworks Wednesday” is now the fourth film I have seen by Asghar Farhadi, an Iranian director I hold in the highest esteem. Unlike the persecuted Jafar Panahi whose works take up broad social and political questions, Farhadi’s films are domestic dramas having much in common with the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s work. What Farhadi and Ceylan share is the ability to communicate the psychic ills of their respective countries through the microcosm of stories that confirm the observation made in the first sentence of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Made in 2006, “Fireworks Wednesday” is not quite up to the standards of his later films—About Elly (2009), A Separation (2011), The Past (2013)—but it is more than good enough to whet your appetite for more. (The first is available on ITunes, the other two on Amazon.)
Like Panahi’s “This is not a Film” that is set against the backdrop of the Wednesday preceding the Iranian New Year, “Fireworks Wednesday”, as the title would indicate, occurs on the same day and shares fireworks as a metaphor for the tensions faced by the respective characters. For Panahi, the firecrackers going off continuously on the streets outside where he is being kept under house arrest remind him of gunfire. At the time, Iran’s most famous director was banned from making films so the merry-making outside only served to deepen his anxiety.
A few minutes into “Fireworks Wednesday”, we see a young chador-clad woman named Rouhi (Taraneh Alidoosti, who played Elly in “About Elly”) showing up at a high-rise in northern Tehran where she has a day laborer’s job lined up to clean an apartment on the sixth floor. As many of you probably remember, this part of the city was a bastion of support for the Green Movement and that was written off by many on the left as a brie-eating, Chablis-drinking den of counter-revolution. Rouhi lives on the outskirts of Tehran and has few interests apparently except getting paid for a day’s work and planning for her impending marriage to a young man from the city’s working class.
As the film begins, firecrackers and rockets are going off constantly in the city’s streets, reminding you the early evening of December 31st. As the film moves ahead with an increasingly strife-ridden narrative, the frequency of the fireworks increases until they seem continuous, especially when we begin to see the bonfires that dot the streets of Tehran–a throwback to Farsi rites of antiquity. At the climax of the film, they suggest the fires of hell.
Just before she enters the apartment where she will be paid for a post-painting clean-up, the bearish husband named Morteza (Hamid Farokhnezhad) and his wife Mojdeh (Hedieh Tehrani) have just finished quarreling over matters that will only be revealed later in the film. We learn that he has been cheating on her with the woman next door who runs a beauty salon out of her living room against building regulations. As it turns out, Mojdeh has suspected them for some time and reported her to the building management that is now trying to evict her, a way that her rival can be removed.
As plots go, this triangle hardly would appear to compare with the nobility of “Anna Karenina” but it is Farhardi’s gift to elevate the affairs of everyday if not ignoble people into intense drama that is unmatched in cinema today. Rouhi is caught between the husband and wife who both try to exploit her in their gambit to keep the marriage together or to break it. As she is snared deeper and deeper into their domestic warfare, the more her attitude toward her own impending marriage darkens.
If you are looking for intense drama starring some of Iran’s finest actors, put “Fireworks Wednesday” on your calendar.