(Originally published on the Film International website.)
What is the last resort in the face of ubiquitous evil? Reza Mirkarimi’s Today has a simple, yet astonishing answer: silence. Today, Iran’s representative in this year’s Academy Awards competition for Best Foreign Language Film, has been underestimated thus far. Nevertheless, it contains all main traits that have universalized Iranian cinema over the past decades: minimalism in script and poetic cinematography, with an air of spirituality. And Mirkarimi has harmoniously incorporated them.
The story of Today revolves around Younes, an extremely quiet war veteran, turned cab driver. Mirkarimi wants us to follow him everywhere, to listen to everything he hears and to figure his silence out. In an early scene, he stops the car to fill up his flask; we follow him with our eyes, while listening to a rather melancholic song playing on the radio:
O unfaithful! Hear my heart’s secret, from my reticence.
Do not ignore this silence!
O friend! Open the soul’s eye! Witness my state!
Do not overlook my heart’s passion!
The scene is so seminal that the director has chosen it to bear his Hitchcockian signature on the film: as we listen to the song, Mirkarimi appears in the background, with a green cap, masquerading as a pedestrian. This tells us that no detail is trivial inToday: in fact, the song is not random. It is a portrayal of Younes and an invitation to take his silence seriously. It reminds us of the silence of Ahmed in the 1987 classic Where Is the Friend’s Home? by Abbas Kiarostami.
Younes’s silence is a defense-mechanism, the last resort of a person with a resolve to live ethically in a world beset by vice. Jafar Panahi has rightly dubbed it “heroic,” for the moral decadence of the society is evident from the very beginning: Younes’s first passenger is banished from his taxi because he is foul-mouthed and aggressive on the phone. And later, the minute gestures and silent acting of the hospital employees takes that vice to a new level.
Also, the choice of names is very well in harmony with the stoic message of the film. In both the Hebrew Bible and the Quran, Younes (Jona) is the prophet of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, who leaves his people to God’s wrath and is punished by spending three days in the belly of a big fish. It is in this light that we can understand the pregnant woman Sedighe’s very cryptic line: “It is not here. It is a hospital with a building across from it that looks like a big fish.”
In fact, a building with a resemblance to a big fish does not exist in Tehran. The big fish is the hospital, and Younes is the one chosen to suffer there – in silence. Extra-marital relationships are unlawful in Iran, to this day. Therefore, Younes has to remain completely silent to any questions. If he says he is the father of the child, they will blame him for Sedighe’s broken ribs and will ask why his name is not on her ID as her husband. If he denies any relationship to her, they will send her illegitimate child to the orphanage. Again, such silence is nothing short of heroic.
The eight-year Iran-Iraq war was a very spiritual time with its own cinematic genre. Those were simpler times. Yes, it was a time of war, but there was a spirit of harmony and transcendence in the air that is missing in Today’s Iran. We have good and we have evil, but unlike what we are used to see on the silver screen, the forces of good and evil are not in constant clash. Evil is already rampant and good reticent. The likes of Younes have won the battle against Saddam Hussein, but the country has lost the moral war. It is “no country for old men.”
The move from the old hospital to the new building symbolizes that transition. It is the dialectic between the old and the new, yesterday and “today”. To Younes, yesterday is, of course, “the gunner’s dream,” that has turned into a nightmare. The dark and dingy corridor, connecting the old hospital with the new, is Younes’s only way out. It is the fish’s throat, through which he escapes to get away from the police. The labour room is a feminist heterotopia, where “they can scream as they please.” It is the only place in the universe of the film where a woman’s screams are not suppressed. It is the only space where Sedighe – who symbolizes the oppressed Iranian woman – can make herself heard. This is where motherhood is exalted and the meaning of a mother’s worries is explained. Why doesn’t he walk away, the way Henry walks away in A Farewell to Arms? Many critics have asked this question and have ascribed that to a flaw in the script. But interestingly enough, Younes answers that question in his labour-room conversations with Sedighe. Younes says he has always dreamt of waiting outside this same door. This is his chance to identify with the non-existent father of Sedighe’s child for a second.
Little does he know that, in fact, according to Mirkarimi’s poetic justice, he is the father of the child. The blue ink on his thumb, from filling out the hospital firms, symbolizes that; as if he has just signed a marriage contract and stamped it with his finger, a common legal gesture in Iran. The poetic justice is, in fact, the force behind the film’s spiritual message. It is always helpful to go back to the bare bones of the plot: Younes helps a stranger despite all hardships and at the end he is rewarded with what he has wanted all his life: a child, a new hope, hope in the next generation’s innocence, hope that the modern hospital can work as well as the dilapidated one. Hope that brave new today’s people can be as moral as yesterday’s.