Tehran confidential

  • by David Lamble
  • Wednesday February 28, 2018
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Welcome to a beautifully animated looking-glass world. In "Tehran Taboo," opening Friday at the Roxie, a collection of cartoon adults and kids take us on a perilous excursion through a country our president has consigned to limbo. You don't have to buy the Trump gospel to get an uneasy feeling about this part of the world where adult women have to get their husbands' permission to do virtually anything at all. In their desperate search for freedom and happiness, four young people from the Iranian capital are compelled to challenge the taboos of a restrictive, authoritarian Islamic culture. In a rotoscope form of animation where the movements of live actors are in effect traced on the screen, these "toons" use their own voices, creating a realistic effect for a foreign-set melodrama with touches of magic realism.

Director Ali Soozandeh deftly transcends the technical gimmick to give us an experience much like Richard Linklater's 2001 feature "Waking Life." Soozandeh gets beats that range from poignant to tragically funny, using a first-rate voice cast starring Farhad Abadinejad, Jasmina Ali, and Rozita Assadollahy. "Tehran Taboo" shares other attributes with "Waking Life," including its setting a fantastical tale in a climate that's insufferably hot, depicting a society with a reputation that ranges from dogmatic to intolerant to religiously absurd. The sight of three enemies of the state hanging from streetlamps becomes all the more compelling because it's rendered in what Americans have regarded as a medium reserved for telling stories to kids.

The filmmakers reserve most of their sympathy for their female characters, who are treated by men, ranging from naive to brutish, as little more than slaves and whores. The rotoscope animation allows some bolder bedroom scenes because the medium softens but does not diminish the urgency of the message.

The film also succeeds by staying firmly inside the Iranian bubble, not allowing the views of Iran's foes, from Mecca to Washington, to color the time we spend inside this despotic universe. We get many views of the seedier side of a world where religious hypocrisy is the least of the toxic behaviors on display. The director keeps us concerned about the fate of a mute boy, of a woman who presses a one-night-stand to restore her virginity so she can be plundered anew by some jackass who will own her adult life, of a young man trying to purchase a fake hymen made in China, and of a young boy who watches baby kittens murdered by pious folks.

"Tehran Taboo" is edgy, experimental, laugh-out-loud funny, a window on a crazy urban center where men smoke, swear, and abuse their inferiors with wild abandon. All this and the G-word: Gay, not God, pops up briefly as a sign that the movie is almost over and we're free to fret once more about the T-word.

Scene from director Ali Soozandeh's "Tehran Taboo." Photo: Kino Lorber