Cannes Xpress 2024: 'The Seed of the Sacred Fig' — Inhuman custody

In keeping with his spirit of dissent and resistance, the latest film also cocks a snook at the establishment.
A still from 'The Seed of the Sacred Fig'
A still from 'The Seed of the Sacred Fig'

It came as no surprise that the biggest applause for a competition film (and the Special Jury award) in the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival should have been elicited by Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof’s The Seed of the Sacred Fig. More than an appreciation of the film itself, it was an assertion of the right to creativity and freedom of expression and a gesture of solidarity with the filmmaker who was banned from travelling out of Iran, forced to withdraw his film and eventually sentenced to eight years in prison, flogging, fine, and confiscation of property by the Iranian government. However, in a dramatic turn of events, Rasoulof managed to flee to Europe to attend the red carpet screening and is currently in an asylum.

In keeping with his spirit of dissent and resistance, the latest film also cocks a snook at the establishment. The parable with which it opens—about how the seeds of fig that are spread by birds, land and grow on other trees, only to strangle their host—sets the tone for what is to follow. Set in the backdrop of the countrywide protests of 2022 against the compulsory hijab, the film is about a seemingly good, righteous man named Iman (Missagh Zareh), a lawyer, who is promoted to an investigating judge in the Revolutionary Court of Iran.

The rise in stature comes with concomitant compromises and giving in to pressure from the authorities. He is expected to not share any information with his family and deliver death sentences without even seeing, let alone examining, the evidence. Meanwhile, his wife Najmeh (Soheila Golestani) and two daughters, Rezvan (Mahsa Rostami) and Sana (Setareh Maleki) have a secret of their own—helping an injured demonstrator and providing her a brief refuge at home. Things come to a head when a gun issued to Iman goes missing.

His rising paranoia and fear of the authorities manifests as a mistrust of his own wife and daughters. Even as they become his conscience keepers, holding a mirror to his manic, fiendish self, and berating him for the decline in his essential humanity, he, in turn, slams their feminist sensibilities. The film starts off powerfully, locating the political in the personal sphere. It unspools like a morality play, with Satan, who goes by the name government, getting the better of an individual soul, and manipulating it. Iman’s bid then is a desperate attempt to survive and stay safe and secure in the face of suppression.

A battle against the takeover by the fig tree. It’s also about how politics preys on and poisons relationships, driving wedges in the seemingly happy and close-knit families. A situation which is not just unique to Iran. The four actors are very well-tuned to make the scenario feel real and relatable. However, the film gradually turns into a bizarre thriller—a revenge drama with women as avenging angels against a misogynist—that shocks with the unconvincing twists and the improbable change in Iman.

Unlike Rasoulof’s previous outing, the astute, potent, lyrical, and moving There is No Evil (2020), that won the Golden Bear at Berlinale, The Seed of the Sacred Fig left me a tad incredulous. But then I wondered about how Rasoulof’s own vicissitudes of destiny are a case of truth being stranger than fiction. All that’s unbelievable on screen may then not be all that impossible and does have a universal ring, given the global political climate.

Rasoulof has been a Cannes regular having screened and won awards for three of his films in the Un Certain Regard section—Goodbye (2011), Manuscripts Don’t Burn (2013) and A Man of Integrity (2017). In fact, last year he was supposed to have been a part of the Un Certain Regard jury but couldn’t join for being banned from leaving Iran. To be present in person, with the photos of Zareh and Golestani (who were disallowed from travelling), at the screening of The Seed of the Sacred Fig was like coming full circle and a case of cinema eventually coming up trumps against authoritarian politics. The symbolism couldn’t have been any stronger.

Cannes Xpress 2024

Straight from the heart of Cannes, our writer brings you updates from one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world

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