Berlinale Exclusive Review: Yalda, la Nuit du Pardon (Yalda, a Night For Forgiveness)

Year: 2019
Runtime: 89 Minutes
Director: Massoud Bakhshi
Writer: Massoud Bakhshi
Starring: Sadaf Asgari, Behnaz Jafari, Babak Karimi, Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy

By Caz Armstrong

The shocking premise of this Sundance-winning film is compelling. Director Massoud Bakhshi‘s second feature “Yalda, la Nuit du Pardon” (“Yalda, a Night For Forgiveness”) shows a woman who must beg for forgiveness on live television or face the death penalty for the accidental murder of her much older husband. It has the hallmarks of a thrilling story, just rife for the big screen.

But unfortunately, there was too much in here that was convoluted or contrived and the drama fizzled out as a result.

Maryam (Sadaf Asgari) is the 26-year-old wife (temporary wife) who accidentally killed her 65-year-old husband during an argument. She is sentenced to death for her crime but there is one hope of salvation. If her husband’s adult daughter Mona (Behnaz Jafari) will forgive her on Yalda night she will live.

The whole event is televised as a celebration of the act of forgiveness for mass entertainment. The public also has the chance to text in their votes and determine who pays the blood money. As the cameras roll on the glossy TV set and the night wears on there are revelations that rock the process, tears and enormous consequences at stake.

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A certain level of understanding is required to really get the most from this film. So while you certainly can’t blame a film for representing a culture you don’t understand, a lot of key ideas are not well explained, or mentioned in passing without enough detail for international audiences to get to grips with.

The unfamiliarity will make it harder for some to engage. Yalda is explained as the Iranian winter solstice celebration where forgiveness is particularly praised. Hence the popular television program “The Joy Of Forgiveness” on which our protagonist finds herself. The ins and outs of blood money is important but it was hard to immediately understand the set-up of the rather convoluted public vote. If there are a certain number of votes in favour of forgiveness the corporate sponsor will pay the blood money but if the ratio is different it will be split.

“It has the hallmarks of a thrilling story, just rife for the big screen. But unfortunately there was too much in here that was convoluted or contrived and the drama fizzled out as a result.”

There were also some complications around whether the decision whether or not to forgive could default to an infant son when he grows up. The blood money would be doubled if so since he is male. Again it was a set of rules that would have increased the stakes if it had been clearer exactly what they were.

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With that aside the setup of the show was very tense. A lot of time is taken in the preparation and the build-up, showing Maryam’s bone-shaking nerves at the enormity of the situation.

“This film is not lacking in drama but the details of the situation may be too complicated and ill-explained for viewers who aren’t familiar with the customs shown”

At the same time, she is treated like a set piece for the producers who have ratings to consider and a show to create. They don’t care about her or the outcome, they just want to put on a popular show. The indifference towards these women and the enormity of the situation is in itself a comment of great importance. They are helpless and at the mercy of the judgement of others.

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A parenthetical scene in the middle of the film sees Mona temporarily on the other side of forgiveness. The setup seemed clunky and out of place for the tone and location of the rest of the film. The resolution of it was also far too swift for the timing and geography which had previously been established.

This film is not lacking in drama but the details of the situation may be too complicated and ill-explained for viewers who aren’t familiar with the customs shown. The structure was jolting in places and so it didn’t quite have the landing that might be hoped for given the premise.

2.5 stars

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