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Film Review: In “African Violet,” Humanity Blooms in All Its Complex Glory

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | August 20th, 2020

Film poster: “African Violet”

African Violet (Mona Zandi Haghighi, 2019) 4 out of 4 stars. 

The story begins simply enough, with a woman, Shokoo, discharging an older man from an assisted living facility and taking him back to her home. We initially assume he is her father, but then the reaction of her husband, Reza, adds the first note of confusion: he doesn’t want to speak to him and talks about the potential of lost honor if their neighbors find out. Is the man, whom she addresses formally as “Mr. Fereydoun,” her father-in-law, with an estranged relationship with his son? Compounding our uncertainty, Shokoo and Reza discuss what her children (i.e., not “their children”) have done and might do, and how they are responsible for placing Fereydoun in elder care. Truth is complicated in African Violet, the sophomore feature from Iranian director Mona Zandi Haghighi (On a Friday Afternoon), and the beauty in watching it is how we untangle the narrative from the slow flow of subtext percolating beneath the dialogue.

For Fereydoun is, in fact, Shokoo’s first husband, whom she divorced years ago in an apparently acrimonious separation that created a rift, still unmended, between her and her now-adult son and daughter. Given how Fereydoun treated her back then, it’s a mystery why she would want to rescue him from the nursing home, yet something in her rebels at the thought of his, as she sees it, imprisonment. We never learn the full details of their marriage, but their age disparity hints at some of the backstory. Beyond the complexities of their interactions, we have the fascinating current relationship between Shokoo and Reza, who despite occasional arguments are clearly in love, Reza adoring his wife. She’s an equal partner, perhaps even the dominant one.

Fatemeh Motamed Arya in AFRICAN VIOLET ©DreamLab Films

Life in their provincial town is pleasant; they live in a large house with a spacious courtyard, Shokoo’s wool-dying business a source of additional income beyond whatever Reza does. Though she may be unable to connect with her own children, a neighboring girl, Fereshteh, comes to her for advice, an interaction that will later cause problems in this tight-knit community, but which momentarily brings both solace. Slowly, even Reza comes around to caring for Fereydoun, and this odd trio engages in an uncomfortable dance of memories past and present, engaging the viewer in great metaphysical questions surrounding aging and forgiveness.

Zandi Haghighi gently takes us through the alternatingly fraught and tender emotional journey of the characters, ably assisted by her fine leads, with Fatemeh Motamed Arya especially shining as Shokoo, her seeming outward calm masking a deep reservoir of feeling. As Reza, Saeed Aghakhani deftly handles the conflict between love and frustration, while Reza Babak, as Fereydoun, makes much of the old man’s lingering glances filled with pain and regret. The entire film is beautifully photographed by cinematographer Farhad Saba, who captures the vibrant colors of Shokoo’s threads, the weathered lines of everyone’s faces and the fading petals of the titular flower (Fereydoun’s favorite) with equal intensity. More than just an intimate family drama (though a gripping one at that), African Violet transcends its singular setting to become a universal meditation on the bonds that tie us all together in our collective human experience. May the violet bloom forever.

l-r: Fatemeh Motamed Arya and Saeed Aghakhani in AFRICAN VIOLET ©DreamLab Films
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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