Ali Soozandeh is the latest director to make curtain-twitchers of us all with Tehran Taboo, either a sophisticated drama on the struggles of life in Tehran for the city's liberal Millennial generation spoilt by forced provocation, or a half-baked facsimile of American Beauty, transplanted to a different time and place, elevated by a great deal more gravity in both concept and execution. Either way, it's clear that Soozandeh has something to say, and something else, and something else again etc. etc. until it becomes quite unclear what he's actually trying to communicate.
I'm inclined to listen. Soozandeh makes his statements without ever getting excessively political - his statements themselves are inherently political given both content and context. Even with all the contrivances and considerable dramatic licence in the approach, Tehran Taboo is brimful with stories that should be told, and that could conceivably capture one's attention and ignite one's intellect. It works best, in fact, when Soozandeh lets those stories tell themselves, effectively, eschewing personal commentary or judgement that their details may speak for themselves. A woman does what she must in order to survive in Tehran, a child adapts to situations beyond his control, a stray cat meowls for food wherever it may find it. Most Iranian cinema these days deals in heavy drama and/or cultural and political critiques - Soozandeh's collage of stories on the seedier side of Tehranian life may be a European production, but it bears those same qualities.
The trouble is that it bears those qualities without using them for anything particularly engaging. Its unique twist appears to be the salacity of its various intertwined narratives, a trait common to all of them - this may be scandalous in Iran, but it's not the film's failure to evoke a similar response in the West that is its greatest flaw. It's that Tehran Taboo never manages to inspire empathy with or understanding of such a response. Soozandeh's provocations are hollow and predictable, the melodrama with which they unfold ever more tiring as the film progresses. The viewer must be either extremely naive or extremely easily-moved to care about these tales, and preferably have to date avoided all those multi-stranded Crash-style films where every character is connected in some perfunctory manner for supposed dramatic augmentation. At times, this is a decent effort, and it's by no means a disaster, but even a new perspective on life in Tehran can't disguise the film's overall familiarity. These are taboos we've all seen before.