The politics of orange farming in Iran is fleshed out in Orange Days, a realistic drama that slow-burns in modest style. Scenes are stripped back, the stars dressed down and long looks of consternation add to the sheer grit of tough work in the cold terrain of a northern province.
Aban (Hediyeh Tehrani) gives a mesmeric performance as a former seasonal labourer who has worked her way up to subcontractor role to run an all-female crew in the all-male world of orange produce. She beats out the male competition, the very men she worked under, and gets the big job of clearing an entire orchard in as little as ten days with a crew of thirty women.
It’s tough work putting oranges into barrels up against an awful boss, a smarmy competitor, striking workers, powerplay and underhanded machinations while the men wait in the wings to watch her fall. But Aban is determined, so much so, she risks her house and marriage.
She wheels and deals with a cool, no-nonsense defiance and as much as gender often plays into expectations about character, it’s interesting to see a woman ignite hellfire in a man’s world where a feminist arc isn’t evident. She’s simply a woman who needs to keep her crew together as she solemnly juggles multiple hurdles and hold-ups. Her unravelling marriage to Majid, in a quiet, nuanced performance by Ali Mosaffa, a young woman with a baby and another with addiction problems, provide important subplots.
From a background of documentary, director Arash Lahooti’s feature length directorial debut captures a relentless world of hard labour and financial despair with a woman at the centre who risks all to prove she can do it.
In previous eras, women were not expected to become great painters and they were often systematically kept away from career opportunities in such fields. We will never know how many fine artists were lost through this exclusion. In this subtle and sensuous French art movie, the passions and the longings of an 18th Century woman painter are delicately explored. Director Celine Sciamma (Girlhood), who also wrote the screenplay, shows great skill and empathy in bringing out both the sensibility of the period and the complex nature of attachment and thwarted desire.
We open with the heroine, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) setting out in a boat destined for a remote island where she will receive a strange commission. When the box containing a precious blank canvas goes overboard, she dives after it neatly demonstrating her life and death commitment to her craft.
On the island, she meets a Comtesse (veteran Italian actor Valeria Golino) who is in the process of arranging a marriage for her daughter Heloise (Adele Haenel). The never-seen suitor requires a portrait of his intended bride and Marianne is there to paint it.
Immediately she realises that Heloise does not want to be painted, in fact she seems distinctly uneasy about the whole arranged/proposed marriage. Slowly Marianne coaxes her into posing.
As the portrait sittings progress, interspersed with long walks on the beach, Heloise goes from sullen to coquettish. We begin to wonder if there is something more between the two women.
Supporting their friendship is young maid Sophie (Luana Bajrami) who, in a different way, also suffers from isolation and a dissatisfaction with a woman’s lot. When the Comtesse goes away to further the marriage negotiations, she leaves Heloise and Marianne with an ultimatum that they must get the portrait finished by her return.
Sciamma approaches her main themes quietly, even obliquely. The film is slow, sometimes languorous, but this suits the slow-burning attraction that is kindled between the women. This is decidedly a women’s film, focusing almost exclusively on female feelings (the men are a distant source of demands or problems). The word smouldering is usually reserved for bodice-ripping romances, but here it is, le mot just.
For some, the thought of living with and taking care of an ex-husband — let alone a frail one — is the last thing on their minds, while for Shokoo (Fatemeh Motamed), it’s nothing short of acceptable. That’s at least the general concept behind Mona Zandi Haghighi’s African Violet, but in its 93 minutes, the apparatus of the film never holds and crackles under ambiguous plotting and minimal coherency.
Haghighi has seemingly become so fixed on creating a tumultuous love triangle, whilst gradually hinting at troubled marital issues and the wider strain these issues have on those around us. The former makes for interesting back-and-forths, but the latter never holds firm and borders on cliché, and does not really say much about what this strange and sudden arrangement means.
That arrangement being Shokoo’s decision to bring and take care of ex-husband Fereydoun (Reza Babak), whose former friend Reza (Saeed Aghakhani) happens to be the current husband of Shokoo. Shokoo is perhaps the character with the most humanity in this small community and it is through her that most of the cause and effect chains in the film are divulged — one of which includes a vague subplot involving the absence of a young girl who leaves the country and her own mother.
Motherhood is also the most prevalent theme in the film, and the strands of nurture and care that it encompasses form the heart of Shokoo’s character. Sure, her situation is a bit more challenging and might not be as easy to identify with for Western audiences, but her shared involvement in the matters of those around her and her very gentle demeanour make Shookoo a very likeable protagonist and one worth sympathising with.
It is also worth mentioning that the film has great spatial awareness and makes the most of the setting of Shokoo and Reza’s house to further the levels of awkwardness that the film relies on to heighten the unnaturalness of the situation. There is also a heavy dependence on tight framing in the house and how it keeps the main trio so involved with each other —intimacy and the lack of freedom is paramount to savouring the interactions here.
In hindsight, if one wanted to see a subversive marital film that is complimented by riveting performances and offers an introspective look at the strenuous nature of marriage and divorce, this wouldn’t be the film to watch. Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story offers the aforementioned whilst also keeping a central focus on how we love and how much we love.
That said, African Violet is an unfamiliar story and quite an unnatural story for people based in the West, but it is wholesome and shares universal values that most can connect with.