Terrestrial Verses

[…] A unique blend of Kafka, Dostoevsky, Beckett and socio-realist surrealism at its best.

[…] Tongue-in-cheek and humorous, the film is a verse, a roar of anger, and a sigh of frustration, all wrapped into one.

Text: Yun-Hua Chen

Beautifully illustrating the power of fragments and snippets, much like how drops of water accumulate into a storming river, Terrestrial Verses, written and directed by the duo Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatami, adeptly crafts theatrical stages on screen and captures punctual moments in static shots. Comprising of ten snippets of ten individuals, interspersed with seconds of black screen, the film offers glimpses into ordinary human lives, trapped within a state burdened by autocratic bureaucracy, where its machines grind on relentlessly, evening out the ground beneath our feet. It is poetic, sarcastic, painfully funny, deeply reflexive, boldly critical – a unique blend of Kafka, Dostoevsky, Beckett and socio-realist surrealism at its best. Set in Iran, this omnibus of tales resonates with bone-chilling universality and heartfelt relatability. It is evident that both directors are well-versed and eloquent cinephiles steeped in a diverse spectrum of art forms, ranging from oral storytelling tradition to theatre and poetry.

In an elegantly inconspicuous manner, each vignette spirals downward from seemingly straightforward incidents or day-to-day tasks, gradually revealing the inescapable absurdities of daily life – from job interviews to discussions with school principals, from shopping trips to meetings with film offices, from filmmaking to dog-searching, from birth certificates to driver’s licenses. As characters navigate through convoluted loops to accomplish even the simplest of chores, they reveal their own vulnerabilities and frustrations while simultaneously exposing the other side’s brutality, inflexibility and senselessness, stemming from deeply ingrained fear and insecurity. Each setting is meticulously crafted, with every mise-en-scène carefully designed and the body movements of each character thoughtfully choreographed. The script is devoid of wasted lines or unnecessary pauses and the cast’s performance, akin to a one-person theatre play, interacts seamlessly with disembodied bureaucratic voices.

This aesthetic minimalism is particularly poignant as it contrasts sharply with the cumbersome circularity of bureaucracy, which permeates every facet of life, imposing faceless, emotionless regulations. The camera embodies the position of bureaucrats; these offscreen voices coldly play God, suppressing all appearances, thoughts and actions outside the dictated norms and threatening punishment if disobeyed. They continuously test the boundaries of human endurance, pushing individuals to their limits as they navigate the bureaucratic maze. Should we remove our T-shirt in exchange for a two-year driver’s license? And what about our trousers? Do we perform the ritual of washing ourselves before prayers in front of an imaginary tap in a job interview? Should we interpret a flirtatious sentence uttered by the potential employer? Do we concede to wearing more layers of veil or accept the policeman’s advice of taking a dog that is not ours? Do we remove pages 16 through 28 of the script in order to obtain permission to proceed with filmmaking?

The existential question we pose ourselves here is: to what extent can an individual compromise while still maintaining the integrity and humanity according to one’s own set of values? The most comically surreal moments arise from these clashes and dilemmas, when individuals are forced to conform to absurd demands in exchange for basic services or rights. It is through the characters sitting front and centre before the camera that the bureaucratic presence off-screen becomes palpable. Reminiscent of a horror film, the unseen and invisible exert a chilling influence, acting as a spur to the imagination and heightening the perceived image of power. This dynamic serves as a metaphor for the power structure of our contemporary world, where the powerful dictate the narrative and the disempowered are left exposed and endlessly scrutinised. Power, though out of sight, is a tool for abuse. The interplay of visibility and invisibility, power and powerlessness, both in front and behind the camera, serves as a stark reminder of the workings of an autocracy.

The cast, including the renowned Gohar Kheirandish, Majid Salehi, Hossein Soleimani, Sadaf Asgari, director Bahram Ark and first-time actress Faezeh Rad, deliver performances that are pitch-perfect, clinically accurate and profoundly authentic. Utilising static shots and one-shot filming, each vignette unfolds in media res and wastes no time lingering once the point is made. Terrestrial Verses also demonstrates a keen ear for tempo and a sharp sense of rhythm in the vein of poetry, with each snippet punctuated by pauses and breaths. The moments of absurdity are transformed into lyric instances of irony and laughter, seemingly the only weapons remaining for individuals who cruise a landscape ready to judge one’s every step and comment on the length of hair. Tongue-in-cheek and humorous, the film is a verse, a roar of anger, and a sigh of frustration, all wrapped into one.

Beginning with the cityscape transitioning from night to day, enveloped in varying hues of light, clouds, fog, or smog, Terrestrial Verses concludes with an almost apocalyptic crumbling-down in the midst of an earthquake or, as the way a job interviewer in the film interprets Al Zelzelah, “the day of judgment”. That is when the film completes the full circle from the real to the surreal, from the terrestrial realm to the other-worldly, serving as a testament to how cinematic artistry can be on a par with a reality that surpasses even the wildest of fiction. Tattooed on the body of the driver’s license applicant is Rumi’s Ghazal (Ode) 2398: «I am drunk and you are insane / tell me, who will lead us home?». May we all be empowered to be drunk and insane no matter where we are one day.


Screenings in Swiss cinema theatres


Terrestrial Verses | Film | Ali Asgari, Alireza Khatami | IRN 2023 | 78’ | Zurich Film Festival 2023 | CH-Distribution: Filmcoopi

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First published: May 10, 2024