Lately, there have been some terrific feminist films about life under patriarchal law. In 2009, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation documented the painstaking process involved when trying to obtain an amiable divorce in Iran: all of the power is in the husband’s hands. Last year, Ronit Elkabetz’s Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, which premiered in the 2014 Director’s Fortnight, told the story of the interminable divorce proceedings faced by a woman in Israel trying to sever ties from her cruel husband; he kept her in court for years. These aren’t message films, but they do, incidentally, deliver potent political statements. One of just four films directed by women in this year’s Un Certain Regard section, writer-director Ida Panahandeh’s Nahid is the latest entry to the group, this time tackling a woman’s life after divorce.
Nahid tells the story of the titular divorcee (Sareh Bayet) who is only free from her ex-husband in theory. She lives alone and independently with her ten-year-old son, Amir Reza, but she struggles to pay their rent. She has a job, but it’s menial work as a typist, and she’s developed a hand injury from it. She has custody of her son, who visits his ex-addict father on weekends, and quarrels with his mother on weekdays. But when she falls in love, it becomes clear that her life is not her own. Her ex-husband only willingly gave up custody of their son on the grounds that should she remarry, he would become the sole holder of custody. Since they live in an Islamic state, she can’t freely be with another man without marriage, for she’d risk the respectability of both of them, which puts her in a very difficult situation. Her tough situation is mirrored by the grey skies and muted colours of the world Panahandeh creates.
Panahandeh crafts a complex portrait of a thirty-year-old woman who became a mother too young and doesn’t quite know how to deal with it. She wants her son to have every opportunity, but her solution is to send him to an expensive private school, which she can’t afford. She’s dangerously in debt. Meanwhile, her son refuses to apply himself to his school work, defeating the purpose of a privileged education. Too worn out to engage with him, she’s responds by berating and punishing him, which only alienates him without motivating him. Money is tight, and she’s forced to come to terms with how she can provide for them when she’s spending recklessly while taking in a modest income.
Nihau is lonely and craves affection. After establishing Nahid’s domestic situation, the first place Panahandeh takes us to is a beautiful, windy beach, where she meets a man, Masoud (Pejman Bazeghi). It’s a refuge from her trying routine, and they proclaim their love for each other. But when we learn that Masoud is wealthy, we also begin to wonder if their affection is real or if she’s using him to gain financial security. He insists on legitimizing their relationship by marrying, but she adamantly refuses, explaining the situation.
Although Nahid seems a kind and gentle man, he’s still deaf to her protestations. He doesn’t take her concerns seriously, insisting they marry and sort out the legal ramifications later. He practically gives her an ultimatum: marry Masoud and risk losing her son, or turn him down and risk losing what he can offer her. In his mind, his needs are of greatest import. And she’s so desperate that she doesn’t know how to fight for herself and make him listen.
Sareh Bayet gives a terrific performance as Nahid, a woman forced into silence, who starts to behave recklessly, sabotaging everything. We see how strong and strong-minded Nahid is, living on her own, taking care of her son. But she can also be hopelessly immature at times, as if her maturity got stunted at the time of her trauma, the birth of her son. She acts with the authority of an adult, but often with the foresight and maturity of a teenager. Amir Reza still hasn’t met Masoud — he doesn’t even know he exists — even once she’s agreed to marry him temporarily. She’s a woman who loves her son deeply, but is still angry that her life was sidetracked by him. At times, even she doesn’t know if she’s using Masoud or in love with him. Panahandeh mirrors Nahid’s confusion visually. She can shoot the beach where Nahid and Masoud meet as a dark, scary and foreboding place — it’s grey most of the time — or as a rustic, romantic setting, their silhouettes against the raging sea.