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‘Terrestrial Verses’ Review: Sitting in the Bureaucrat’s Seat

Half the cast of “Terrestrial Verses” never appears onscreen. Instead we hear their voices as they speak to a variety of ordinary Tehranians: a young woman applying for a job, a man seeking to register his newborn son’s name, a filmmaker, a little girl, a driver’s license applicant. Out in the audience, we’re watching the hopeful faces of those people, who become crestfallen as it becomes clear that whatever they want, no matter how small, is impossible, for no real reason at all. An authoritarian regime, and a bureaucratic establishment that props up byzantine rules, has seen to that.

“Terrestrial Verses,” written and directed by Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatami, unfolds as a series of vignettes, almost like tiny one-act plays. Selena (Arghavan Shabani), the little girl, is wearing headphones and dancing when we meet her, while, off-camera, her mother and a shopkeeper discuss a uniform she needs for a school ceremony. Selena keeps getting called over by her mother, returning to our field of vision wearing yet another layer of clothing in the drab neutrals mandated by the school’s rules. In another vignette, a new father (Bahram Ark) wants to name his baby David, but is informed that it’s simply impossible, since the name is Western and doesn’t have the state-required religious connotation. In another, the filmmaker, named Ali (Farzin Mohades), exasperatedly converses with a culture ministry official, who wants him to remove nearly everything from his screenplay in order to make it acceptable to the regime.

The most maddening segments show how boxed-in women are, attempting to simply live their lives without accidentally crossing some line. Or not even crossing it: Sadaf (Sadaf Asgari), a young ride-share driver with and a punk affect and short hair beneath her head scarf, argues with an official. Traffic cameras caught what the official insists is a woman driving Sadaf’s car, head scarf removed. Isn’t a car a private space?, Sadaf asks. The official disagrees, and Sadaf is deemed a criminal.

Because each vignette is no more than a few minutes long and consists of Kafkaesque conversations that border on the absurd, “Terrestrial Verses” operates with a cumulative effect. It’s death by a thousand pinpricks, a succession of small indignities. Each seemingly simple task is not just saddled with procedural irritations — forms to fill out, appointments to attend, banal questions to answer — but with fear. Suppose your answer to a routine query could incriminate you or there’s no way to prove to an official that you aren’t lying. How would you live your life?

Those questions run through “Terrestrial Verses,” which consists entirely of stark, locked-off shots that place each segment’s protagonist in the box of the frame. It becomes clear that the shots themselves are full of meaning. Each actor in the uniformly excellent cast is centered on the screen, and as they are heaped with indignities, the frame becomes something like a mug shot, or a prison — a place where they’re confined for us to look at them, watch their reactions, judge their facial cues.

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