An Iranian journalist persists in wanting to cover a criminal affair that everyone, from the population to the highest authorities, seems to ignore: a series of murders of prostitutes in the holy city of Mashhad. The closer she gets to the criminal, the more she realizes that the perversity lies elsewhere than in her acting out… A necessary and courageous film, as recent news – and after its release – reminds us, but above all a cinematic tour de force.
Mashaad’s Nights is a film full of pitfalls, a nesting film that passes from one classicism to another while maintaining a level of narrative density and quite staggering subtext. A sum and a pinnacle for what is Ali Abbasi’s only third film – the previous, Border, was already devilishly mastered, although dealing with a completely different subject. The context can only amplify the explosion felt after seeing him, a context that is tragically recalled by the assassination attempt on a Salman Rushdie sentenced to death and life by the Iranian theocratic regime. Because this film is ultimately just that: a huge charge against this native country in which he will probably never be able to return, just like its main actress, Zar Amir Ebrahimi, resigned herself to exfiltrate. It is important to read it with this vision, to discover it as an Iranian resident would if he only had the right to do so.
The first minutes evoke a police and journalistic hunt at the Zodiac, in a sprawling city admirably filmed, where, in a sticky and suffocating atmosphere, the sacrilege and the sacred mingle to better merge. But quickly the film branches off in another direction. Abbasi concentrates on his killer, quickly extirpates him from his mystery to direct our gaze to his duality, his apparent normality, his raw monstrosity. He makes him a Hitchcockian character, a Boston strangler whose progression in pure pathology we can only observe, an admirably shown mosaic pathology, the assassin showing himself by turns megalomaniac and pitiful, hallucinated messianic and skilful comedian, organized psychopath and reckless psychotic, all against the backdrop of war trauma. The way in which his delirium gradually contaminates the image and blurs the narrative is also remarkable.
In a final part, perhaps the most surprising, the film acquires yet another dimension. The delirium shifts, reverses, or rather appears in its real dimension, that of a society conditioned to absurdity by a system perverted by the poison of theocratic influence. The film was seen as a work of feminism, which is not false, but is also very reductive, as if the critics’ gaze was biased by an all-Western prism – a critic who often denounced, in a rather bewildering way a posteriori, a supposed complacency or even obscenity in the way violence is shown. The generalization of this violence, like a gangrene, until the final shot, is nevertheless the antithesis of complicity, even if it does not prevent ambiguity – the journalist herself is not exonerated from this obsession with punishment. Neither feminist nor complacent, Abbasi is above all a humanist, political filmmaker who, by means of a terrifying fable à la Gogol in its societal description, and with Dostoyevskian accents, has decided not to close his eyes to any aspect of what is inflicted on his probably much loved country, and to force us to watch. A regime that lets its women but also its lunatics be killed, and that has found the best way to perpetuate its domination: to inoculate its chronic delirium with a hereditary dimension.