Docking in Portland as the opening-night selection of the 22nd Annual Cascade Festival of African Films, this 2009 picture from Egypt contains a number of images presaging Tahrir Square. Most obviously, a lone woman holds a banner aloft as a riot squad encircles her with its shields. But the more memorable shot is of a virgin-deflowering con artist and political attaché (Mahmoud Hemida) so delighted by his latest blackmail that he ballroom dances across a parking garage. If director Yousry Nasrallah is channeling the muse of
storyteller Scheherazade, he is doing it through nickelodeon melodrama, with calculating villains betraying virtuous women. This is history written in TV soap; the framing device is a daytime talk show run by Hebba (Mona Zaki) that undercuts the chauvinist establishment. But by the time we get to the story of three sisters competing for the same man—a story that ends with one of them setting the suitor on fire and asking, "Tell me, Saïd, how does hell feel?"—the talk show has earned the name "Dusk to Dawn." First the blood and sex, then the revolution.
Thanks in no small part to Jafar Panahi, Iranian cinema keeps its ear to the ground, preferring close observation of unfairness to broad political fusillade. With Panahi a political prisoner, that mantle falls to Asghar Farhadi, whose
is rightly favored for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. This sounds like a downer, as does the plot: A marriage is all over but the shouting, and there's a lot of shouting. But the movie is riveting, even exhilarating. Farhadi tracks the fallout between Simin and Nader (Leila Hatami and Peyman Maadi) as it extends to the pregnant caretaker (Sareh Bayat) whom Nader distractedly hires for his Alzheimer's-stricken father. The film watches each character's mixed motivations as if preparing a legal brief. Indeed, all the players are soon arguing to a beleaguered magistrate who longs for his teatime. Cinema typically strains for the recognizable, so we don't have to think, but in
everyone has their reasons, and it does not matter if those are anyone else's—let alone yours.