Tuesday, January 14, 2020

No Date, No Signature: Tragic Iranian Film Echoes Tolstoy and Packs a Wallop

"Sometimes when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things, I am tempted to think there are no little things."--Barton Sutter

This past week I saw the 2017 Iranian film No Date, No Signature. Directed by Jahid Jalilvand, it's a superb foreign film that addresses the moral complexity of human behavior, and how seemingly little decisions can have totally unexpected, life-altering consequences.

While driving home one evening after dark Dr. Kaveh Nariman, a forensic pathologist, is quietly lost in his thoughts when a car suddenly buzzes past and he swerves slightly, striking a family of four on a motor scooter. Rather than call the police, the doctor takes time to examine them after which he suggests they bring the boy to the clinic for further tests. Their scooter is a little worse for wear with a broken headlamp and cracked windshield, but otherwise fine.

The doctor drives behind them so that his headlights can light their way, but when he points out the clinic they pass on and make a right, heading home.

The next day the doctor is stunned to find this same boy is now in the morgue, having been brought in at three in the morning. He's more than shocked because now his conscience weighs on him. Why had he not examined the boy more thoroughly? It will also come out later that he did not call the police because his insurance was expired, a little thing that suddenly has bigger consequences.

Add caption
An autopsy is performed on the boy and there turns out to be more to the story there, too. His wife, who works at the clinic, performed the autopsy and believes the boy died of botulism from eating bad meat. In talking with the parents she learns he had been sick for a week, vomiting and unable to keep anything down.

Dr. Nariman can't let it go, however, that he may have been responsible for the boys death. Perhaps there was a neck fracture that everyone missed. How will he silence his troubled conscience?

More layers are stripped from the onion as the father of the boy, after a conflict with his wife as a result of this incident, goes and assaults a man at the chicken processing plant for selling bad meat. The man falls and hits his head, ending up in a coma, not the father's intent, but another consequence of escalating anger and frustration. Now, the father Moosah is in jail.

The acting is perfect throughout. You are watching real people wrestle with painful issues. The camera work and direction are top notch and it's easy to see why the film won awards at several film festivals.

While watching, and reflecting on the film afterwards, Tolstoy’s novella The Forged Coupon came to mind. The Forged Coupon begins with a little thing, a forged ruble note. How this leads to increasingly costly consequences has a lesson for each of us. It's like a snowball on a mountainside that has little effect at first but grows into a force of its own, resulting in an avalanche of destruction. When a man's life is taken, another little thing occurs--a response of compassion and mercy--and a remarkable reverse cascade is set in motion. It's a simple but amazing story.

In No Date, No Signature, the reverse tide does not occur. It is a story more tragic, where grace is needed but has not yet been revealed. It’s painful and beautiful simultaneously.

The story is well-crafted. The characters are complex and their struggles real. The doctor’s conscience is disturbed and his integrity is at stake. By the film’s end we see how much suffering can be caused by a little thing.

In a similar vein, Tolstoy's story "A Spark Neglected Burns the House" demonstrates what happens when unresolved issues are permitted to fester and grow. That story appears in his volume of stories titled Twenty-Three Tales, and as the title suggests, it's about what happens when a little thing is permitted to grow into a conflagration.

* * * *
The version I saw was Persian with English subtitles. The actors, as I noted and will state again, were superb.

My mother used to recite the following little verse when I was young:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost. 
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of the battle the kingdom was lost.
All for the want of a horseshoe nail.

* * * *
Ironically, when I watched the film this past week the U.S. and Iran had a flare-up of hostilities. I could not help but feel another important aspect of this film is how human we all are. Iran is a nation populated by artists, thinkers, doctors and ordinary people wrestling with issues just like ourselves. They have a film industry that can produce powerful stories equal to our own. The depth and beauty here reminded me of some Iranian friends we had years ago. Let us not lose sight of the essential humanity we all share.

My rating: Five stars out of 5 

No comments: