Hassan Yektapanah’s Djomeh is perhaps the strangest and most rewarding romance you’ll see all year. Of course, anyone who’s seen the film will probably find my use of the term “romance” a bit perverse. The two romantic partners barely speak to each other and never carry on what might be called a conversation. And, unlike most Hollywood romances, which portray the protagonist’s inner struggles and development, neither Djomeh (Jalil Nazari) nor his romantic object, Setareh (Mahbobeh Khalili), ever change, from beginning to end. However, the film is centrally concerned with boundaries, an issue at the heart of most film romances. It is Djomeh‘s unwillingness to play by the typical rules of the genre in exploring these boundaries that makes it such a fascinating film.
The film follows the day-to-day life of Djomeh, an Afghan immigrant to Iran who left home because of past romantic indiscretions. (He disgraced his family by falling in love with an older woman.) In Iran, Djomeh doesn’t have much by way of frienships. Every time he goes into town, he is ridiculed by children for being foreign. Habib (Rashid Akbari), the fellow Afghan who traveled to Iran with him, doesn’t seem to really like him. The only friend he really has is Mr. Mahmoud (Mahmoud Behraznia), his boss on the farm where he works, with whom he engages in long conversations during which they share their histories, their loves, and their lives.
Jalil Nazari, Rashid Akbari, Mahmoud Behraznia, Mahbobeh Khalili
(New Yorker Films)
One day, on a trip into town, Djomeh sees Setareh, the daughter of a local shopkeeper, and immediately decides that he would like to marry her. The problem is that, according to local custom, he is not allowed to speak to her and must propose through her father. Unfortunately, her father never would consent to the marriage because of Djomeh’s foreignness, and so he eventually enlists the help of Mr. Mahmoud, who agrees to assist him but also insists that success is impossible. Undaunted, Djomeh continues his quest, trying to skirt local practices and prejudices in his attempts to speak with Setareh.
The three boundaries that keep Djomeh and Setareh apart are ethnicity, nationality, and gender. Because Djomeh is from Afghanistan, he is treated by most of the Iranians he meets like a second-class citizen. We like to think that love has no borders, but, in practice, love is often daunted by such difficulties. Still, such love across boundaries is the device that most romances call upon, from classics like Romeo and Juliet to modern updates like the gay love story, Beautiful Thing.
In order to sidestep or challenge the rules, however, you need to be able to communicate. An unmarried woman speaking to an unmarried man (and an Afghan immigrant at that) is such a taboo in Iran that Djomeh can’t even bring his case to Setareh. She politely refuses to speak with him at every turn. Gender relations are so rigid that Djomeh can never quite break down the wall between them. Still, he refuses to give up.
Up to this point, Djomeh isn’t all that different from other mainstream romances in putting up barriers between the two leads. However, those other romances usually offer a resolution, whether it’s that love is stronger than any barriers to its success or that the world is an imperfect place where the barriers win out. What makes Djomeh so fascinating is its refusal to take a stand either way. Most romances urge us on by withholding the resolution and finally reward us with its revelation. The audience wants to know whether Romeo and Juliet will get together. Any insight we gain into what keeps them apart is muddied by what ends up happening, so that our critical attention gets refocused, away from the boundaries that drive the plot to the resolution. If I find Shakespeare’s depiction of power and family loyalty fascinating while in the theater, I end up remembering how tragic it all is while I’m walking to my car afterwards.
Djomeh does the opposite. We are still urged on by our desire to see whether or not Djomeh will win his suit. But, by denying us the answer, the film brings our attention back to what keeps him from his goal. Rather than walk away from the theater saying “love conquers all” (had Djomeh succeeded) or “prejudice still wins out” (had he failed), we end up wondering why Setareh’s father is so unwilling to accept an Afghani man into his family and why Setareh is unable ever to speak with Djomeh. The boundaries are shoved into the forefront so that we focus on them rather than on forced endings.
I also think, however, that the unresolved ending is perhaps the most optimistic one the film could have given us. To take cues from Hollywood and slap on a “happy ending,” any pleasure we might have felt at Djomeh’s success would have been tempered by the realization that it’s not true to life. And if it had shown what seems the inevitable result of all the blockades—Djomeh being forced to move on, once again because of romantic indiscretions—our worst suspicions would have won out, that prejudice is again victorious. Despite the fact that Djomeh seems doomed to fail, however, the film leaves us hanging, as if offering us a chance to imagine another ending. By freezing time and leaving us pondering the boundaries that separate, the film seems to be hoping that we can finally provide the opportunity for Djomeh and Setareh to sit down and have a chat.