Terrestrial Verses: The Iranian regime’s day of reckoning

Terrestrial Verses: the Iranian regime’s day of reckoning
7 min read
13 October, 2023

In the eighth vignette of Terrestrial Verses, filmmaker Ali tries to apply for a permit to shoot his film. Though polite, the official insists he alters the script to make it compliant with the Iranian regime’s censors.

"I can’t write this way," Ali argues. The officer tries to convince him: "We have many masters in [Iranian] cinema. They all made movies under these same regulations. And they won many awards."

Ali stares at him. After some back and forth, he refuses to make the film altogether.

"Terrestrial Verses is a densely poetic film that is destined to form an integral part of the Iranian cinema’s canon"

This scene typifies the reaction of artists, including Terrestrial Verses filmmakers Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatami, to the Woman Life Freedom movement that rocked Iran after the murder of Mahsa Amini whilst in the morality police’s custody a year ago.

Unlike the Green Movement before it, the Woman Life Freedom movement rejected hope in reform for an all-out attempt to overthrow the Islamic regime, at severe personal cost for many protestors.

And indeed, the filming of Terrestrial Verses has come at a cost for one of the filmmakers. After returning from the film’s premiere in Cannes last month, Ali Asgari was served with a ban from travelling and making films.

Asgari and Khatami were likely aware of this risk as they began filming. Terrestrial Verses is a direct challenge to the regime through its depiction of eleven Iranians struggling to escape a theocratic maze.

Filmed in static, long takes, the viewer is placed in the seat of the off-screen regime official, watching eleven characters sequentially navigate the heavy restrictions placed upon their lives.

Like filmmaker Mehran Tamadon, whose diptych Where God Is Not and My Worst Enemy released earlier this year directly addresses the regime’s interrogators, Khatami and Asgari seem to be implying that if only regime representatives would take a long, hard look at the suffering they cause, they might reconsider their actions.

Western viewers might find the film absurdist; and indeed the motif of being caught in an endless bureaucratic maze recalls other absurdist works of the same theme, such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Franz Kafka’s The Trial.

However, Iranians will recognise the vignettes as hyper-realistic. From birth to death, the regime penetrates deep into society – from Iranians’ names, how they dress, to what pets they have, allegedly in the name of Shia Islam.

And yet, as Asgari and Khatami demonstrate, the regime’s behesht-e ejbari (mandatory heaven) – coined so memorably in the song that became the anthem of the Woman Life Freedom movement – is steeped in hypocrisy.  

As Ali finds in his attempts to gain a permit to shoot his film, even depicting Qur’anic verses such as sureh-ye Yousof would not be regime-compliant.

Moreover, as the fifth and sixth vignettes demonstrate, with one class of Iranian society allowed to exercise unfettered power, sexual harassment runs amok and flies in the face of the regime’s stated goal to protect society from humans’ most basic desires through policies including mandatory hijab.

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It seems that Khatami and Asgari are arguing that when citizens are forced to live amidst such flagrant hypocrisy, both regime insiders and outsiders become engaged in a performance.

In the sixth vignette, street peddler Siamak interviews for a job. In reference to the mass exodus from governmental jobs, private companies, and educational institutions after the regime imposed Islamic education requirements for study and work post-revolution, the interviewer asks Siamak to perform wuzu, namely, ablution.

With no water for him to perform this ritual purification before prayer, the interviewer mocks opening a tap and Siamak, humiliated by the pretence, acts out ablution.

It’s an incisive metaphor for Iranian political life that summarises how the regime maintains control: through performance.

The filming of Terrestrial Verses, in static, long-shot scenes, reinforces the same message. We, as viewers, are placed in the mise-en-scene as if the audience of a play.

"Khatami seems to be returning to Iran’s centuries-old culture steeped in humanism, intellectual dissent, religious debate, and the highest forms of freedom of expression as found in reflection and knowledge of self"

The regime and society are both aware that each party is merely acting – but acting is all that’s required.

Yet, Asgari and Khatami seem adamant that this performance will soon come to an end.

The threat of an impending earthquake – seemingly symbolising the end of the regime – is one of the film’s most significant leitmotifs.

It’s heard grumbling through the soundscape of the film, for which much credit is owed to sound designer and recordists Alireza Alavian, Abdolreza Heydari, and Imam Bazyar.

In the fifth vignette, a woman applying to work at a company in the ‘concrete business’ asks what exactly the firm does; her interviewer explains that their work is to make buildings more resilient to earthquakes since "Tehran is sitting on a huge faultline."

It’s a seemingly throwaway comment that presages the agitation bubbling under the surface of Iran.

Similarly, the street peddler Siamak interviewing for a job is asked to recite sureh-ye zelzeleh (Chapter of the Earthquake) from the Qur’an.

When asked what the verse is about, he responds "It’s about an earthquake." The interviewer retorts, sharply, "Earthquake? It’s about the day of judgment."

He goes on to recite the verse: "When the earth is shaken in its ultimate quaking […] on that day people will proceed in separate groups to be shown the consequences of their deeds, so whoever does an atom’s weight of good will see it, and whoever does an atom’s weight of evil will see it."

Khatami and Asgari have placed their words, an inferred threat to the regime, in the interviewer’s mouth, through the lens of the religion their fictional character has appointed himself to defend. 

Much like Mohammad Rasoulof’s 2020 release, There Is No Evil which explores personal responsibility vis-à-vis the death penalty, Asgari and Khatami end the film with a call to action for the numerous actors who make the regime’s operations possible.

The film’s penultimate scene concerns a regime official in Tehran who shows a glimpse of humanity to an elderly woman looking for her dog.

The official she’s met with isn’t a regime aficionado. He’s likely a conscript posted to Tehran –as evidenced by his regional accent – an ordinary citizen trying to make ends meet.

Like the morality police officer in an earlier scene who tells her colleague to send in the next woman to be apprehended in the same breath as asking him what they will order for lunch, evil is banal and sustained through systems comprised of everyday people.

It’s an entreaty for Iranian society to rid themselves of the shackles of a regime.

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In its place, Khatami seems to be returning to Iran’s centuries-old culture steeped in humanism, intellectual dissent, religious debate, and the highest forms of freedom of expression as found in reflection and knowledge of self.

Steeped in Iranian cultural and poetic references, including thirteenth-century poet and Sufi mystic theologian Rumi, Terrestrial Verses takes its title from one of Iran’s most beloved female poet Forrough Farrokhzad’s works, a millenarian depiction of the end of time.

Above and beyond its political message, Terrestrial Verses is a densely poetic film that is destined to form an integral part of the Iranian cinema’s canon.

Tiara Sahar Ataii has worked in humanitarian response for the UN and major NGOs in 11 countries. She founded SolidariTee, which fights for refugee rights. She is also part of the 2022 'Forbes 30 under 30'