Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit viff.org and follow VIFF on Twitter at @viffest.
Co-produced by Jafar Panahi’s brother Yousef, this topical Iranian film was made in secret to hide from censorship. It regularly uses a candid camera, has a particularly documentary like tone, and deals with issues such as feminism, humility, and violence. Paradise is a rather frustrating film, as the project and its intentions promise more than the film ultimately delivers. Through a meditatively languid rhythm, Paradise follows the life and surroundings of 25 year old schoolteacher, Hanieh (Dorna Dibaj), who dons a strikingly black hijab which contrasts greatly with much of the film’s mise-en-scene. Cinematographer Payam Sadeghi paints a rather bleak picture, with a myriad of dark tones meant to capture the sullen mood expressed by Hanieh. Still grieving the loss of her parents from one year before, Hanieh fulfills her duties as a schoolteacher with much dismay. Opening with an interview which is heard but not seen, it is known from the beginning that Hanieh does not follow nor wishes to follow the exact rules of Islam. She does not always wear a hijab and, though she keeps all her frustrations to herself in quiet desperation, it is shown through visual language that she rejects some religious laws: she meets a boyfriend, smokes a cigarette, and walks alone at night.
Conversing at times with non-actors who are unaware they are being filmed, Dorna Dibaj, a relative newcomer, brings out real topical aspects of Islamic statism directly from the source. Since much of the happenings in this state are unknown or withheld, the film has a subversive edge, giving the impression of urgency or immediacy despite the monotony and mundanity seen on screen. Unfortunately, while the low-key kidnapping story and hidden threat of violence is rather affecting, the film’s success in sharing the nature of Islamic ideals and their necessary evils is slight if at all present. Though beautifully told, the film appears to constantly loop conversation on the conflict between tradition and modernity, liberty and control, and expression and repression, without ever providing something particularly resourceful or insightful by its end.
Sadeghi’s chiaroscuro and the film’s general visual design is easily its strongest aspect. From natural lighting and on location settings, the film has a certain neorealist tone which well befits the subject matter. It furthermore allows Dena the freedom to capture very particular moments, from the shot-motifs of Hanieh staring at the mindlessly free fish move about in a bowl to how she wraps herself inside a white curtain to look through a window. Candlelight, elevator light, and other natural sources move in and out of the film’s frame to illuminate and darken in an almost montage-like use of light. Such visual aspects of the film resonate much more strongly than its script-written dialogues.
Though beautifully told, the film appears to constantly loop conversation on the conflict between tradition and modernity, liberty and control, and expression and repression, without ever providing something particularly resourceful or insightful by its end.