Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi came to international prominence with the Oscar-winning A Separation (2011), about a husband and wife trying to end their marriage amid the strict morality of the Islamic Revolution. That Oscar win has stoked interest in Farhadi's earlier work: his engrossing mystery About Elly (2009), in which the sudden disappearance of a young woman roils a group of vacationing professionals, screened last year at Gene Siskel Film Center, and this week Music Box presents Fireworks Wednesday (2006), another tale of a married couple on the rocks. Farhadi is an essential filmmaker, but I'm not sure Fireworks is an essential film: though I appreciate it as a warm-up for his later, better films, I have to concede that its plotting can be murky, and for the most part it lacks the provocative social and religious overtones that make some of his subsequent dramas extraordinary.
Fireworks is Farhadi's third feature, and his dramatic style is already pretty well developed. When his characters argue—and they argue a lot—they never trade in the sort of polished, writerly comebacks you hear in American movies. They speak plainly and fight bitterly, getting in each other's faces, as if the sheer force of their anger will turn the tide. The bickering goes on interminably, and every conflict threatens to spiral out of control. Fireworks follows the sneaky young Roohi (Taraneh Alidoosti) during the course of a day as she collects an assignment from a temp agency to clean an apartment and arrives at the home of Morteza (Hamid Farokhnezhad) and his wife, Mozhde (Hediyeh Tehrani), who are on the brink of separation. Mozhde suspects Morteza of cheating on her with the hairdresser who lives upstairs, and she enlists Roohi in a plan to expose the affair. But Roohi has other ideas.
Farhadi's stories tend to be physically complicated (the grievances and misunderstandings typically involve practical problems) and morally complex (the ethical high ground can give way at a moment's notice). Much of Fireworks turns on the hairdresser's business, which she's running out of her apartment to the inconvenience and growing resentment of her neighbors. One hairdressing client, who has blocked the apartment's entry gate with her car, comes downstairs after her appointment to find her tire slashed. But even as these complications take up most of the action onscreen, Mozhde and Morteza are constantly trying to get the upper hand over the other, the wife digging at her husband's infidelity and the husband grasping at Sharia law to condemn his wife's disrespect and disobedience.
No one watching Fireworks could overlook the fact that it takes place in the Islamic Republic, but Farhadi still hasn't figured out how to knit the country's regressive social codes into the fabric of the story. In his next feature About Elly, the disappearance of the young woman implicates her travel companions, who have lied about her marital status so that she can accompany them to the seashore without a chaperone. In A Separation, the wife wants to take advantage of a temporary visa to get their daughter out of Iran so she won't have to live in a theocracy, whereas the husband feels compelled to stay and look after his infirm father. Fireworks Wednesday may not equal those films (or Farhadi's most recent release, The Past), but they show a filmmaker honing the storytelling skills that will serve him well on more ambitious projects. v