Film Review: Tehran Taboo

Animated feature paints a frank and absorbing portrait of sex and morality in Iranian society.
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The fascinating animated drama Tehran Taboo doesn’t dismiss outright the reality that many residents of the Iranian city might enjoy happily devout or mundane lives, going about their business by the strict codes and regulations of the Islamic Republic. However, this film, written and directed by Ali Soozandeh, is wholly disinterested in those who are leading devoutly moral lives.

Rather, Tehran Taboo zeroes in on those who find themselves, or put themselves, in conflict with the harshly prescribed morality of this society, which operates with clear double standards for men and women. A prostitute, Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh), raising her son, Elias (Bilal Yasar), while seeking a divorce from her incarcerated addict husband, moves into an apartment building where she befriends housewife Sara (Zar Amir Ebrahimi), who harbors her own secrets from her reserved loan officer husband, Mohsen (Alireza Bayram), and his mother (Siir Eloglu), who lives with them.

Just around the corner in their bustling neighborhood lives a young musician and songwriter, Babak (Arash Marandi), who, like Pari and Sara, is having difficulty finding a balance between opportunity and his limited civil liberties. Babak records an album of his pop music, but he can’t release a CD or monetize the project in any way without authorization from the state. Worse yet, an impromptu tryst with Donya (Negar Mona Alizadeh), a girl he meets on a nightclub dance floor, results in potentially deadly consequences, as he discovers he’s deflowered a virgin who’s bound to be married.

As Babak soon learns, the morality police and their moles are everywhere, watching, listening. Both he and Donya could be killed, or at the very least arrested, just for meeting to discuss how to arrange the solution to their problem: a procedure, commonly done in Tehran, to restore Donya’s hymen, so that her fiancé is none the wiser. But that operation requires parental consent. Good luck with that.

While certainly insightful about life governed by Islamic Revolutionary law, Soozandeh’s script traffics in a seedy sort of suspense. It’s as if Abel Ferrara had turned his lens on the gritty street life of Tehran. There are no saints, but several endearing survivors populating this dive beneath the façade of a modern city that feels in some regards permissive but on the whole seems utterly oppressive to women who even try to exercise choice over when and with whom they have sex or are seen with in public.

The city is a character unto itself, vibrant, mysterious, occasionally ugly, and Soozandeh, responsible also for the film’s art direction, renders the portrait with style. Circumventing the impossibility of shooting this story in Iran, instead he shot the live actors in a green-screen studio, with the footage then processed as rotoscoped animation. Adding layered sound design, plus Ali N. Askin’s evocative score—along with some of the characters voiced by different actors than those responsible for the visual performances—Tehran comes to life.

The conversion from live action to rotoscope isn’t seamless. More than once, the vocals and sound effects don’t sync with the animation. But that issue does no real disservice to the story, which continuously engages as an examination of ethics in a place where a man can buy nudie magazines and yet be detained for hours at a checkpoint over possessing them. Taboo activities like walking hand-in-hand with a boyfriend can lead to jail time, and public hangings draw crowds in the streets.

A recurring refrain, “There are regulations to follow,” applies to every walk of life in Tehran (although conspicuously absent in Soozandeh’s telling are any characters representing that especially oppressed segment of Iranian society, the LGBTQ community). The truth of the matter, and the subject here, is that those rules can be bent or broken using the same tools and privileges that also grant freedom in supposedly freer societies: power, money, sex, trickery. They all come into play for Pari, Sara, Babak and Donya in this soapy, somewhat depressing, yet vital depiction of strivers compelled to live outside their society’s rules.

Click here for cast and crew information.