Sundance 2020 – Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness

Maryam (Sadaf Asgari) is a young woman accused of murdering her husband and is sentenced to death. In Iran, the law allows for her life to be spared if the victim’s family forgives her. On the holiday of Yalda, in front of a live television program called “Joy of Forgiveness” aimed at helping usher this process in for those convicted of murder, Maryam’s fate is now in the hands of her husband’s daughter, Mona. Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness is as stressful and unique a film as you’d imagine.

Writer/director Massoud Bakhshi is refreshingly confident in his ability to stage a scene and even more trusting of his actors. He lets things unfold in long, unbroken takes that really let his performers shine. Asgari is particularly great, convincingly relating the uncertainty and anxiety surrounding the position she’s in. Bakhshi plants you in her predicament well, you really don’t know if Mona is going to forgive her or not as the film keeps going. In choosing to unfold the story largely backstage of this talk show, Bakhshi allows himself to kind of examine the nature of true crime now: entertainment. What is the cost of this? The line from the show’s producer, “You can ruin your life, but you won’t ruin my show.” sticks with you. 

The film drops a bomb halfway through that really ups the stakes, but then strangely has little impact on the resolution of the film. I don’t know that anybody in that theater really knew what was going on at the end, or at least what was intended for us to feel by Bakhshi. It’s an abruptly cold, empty sort of ending that doesn’t really pounce upon any of the ideas of the intersection of religion and entertainment it brings up. But I don’t want this to sound like I disliked the film, I really admired it. I just felt it took the foot off the gas a bit too abruptly for its own good. It is far better than some things I’ve seen at the festival this year. I’m glad I saw it, because I likely wouldn’t have had the chance to ever again. It is in films like this that the festival really shines.

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