Iranian women were rightfully voted TIME magazine’s Heroes of the Year in 2022 for their valiant defence of their human rights and dignity.
Their violent rebellion began in the autumn of last year, following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody after he was arrested by the morality police for failing to adhere to the government’s outdated clothing code.
Writer-director Noora Niasari’s subtly compelling film “Shayda,” which is set in an Australian city in the 1990s, doesn’t initially appear to be directly related to these current events.
The film’s title character, a young Iranian lady who wants a free life on her own terms, free from the control of her abusive husband and the patriarchal conventions and standards of conduct that stifle her existence, yet, embodies the same bravery and fortitude.
The reason “Shayda,” which has Cate Blanchett among its executive producers, occasionally skews too formulaic and has an obvious denouement from the first act is because the male abuser’s script is also frequently predictable.
In that sense, we are familiar with Shayda’s spouse from a number of American and foreign motion pictures, including “I, Tonya,” “Herself,” and “Custody,” as well as from real life.
We are familiar with the ways in which these individuals behave, threaten, manipulate the system, and, in some way, persuade the authorities that they have changed and are therefore worthy of another opportunity.
Similar to several of the previously listed films, “Shayda” depicts what occurs when such violent abusers are given a second opportunity, even though they frequently lack the will or skill to give up their entitlement.
At the beginning of the movie, Shayda (played brilliantly by Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who just won the Cannes Film Festival for “Holy Spider”) still has hope.
Her charming young daughter Mona (seven-year-old Selina Zahednia, wonderfully skilled) greets us as she settles into a covert women’s shelter.
Mona is an astute figure based on the filmmaker’s personal experiences: When Niasari was barely five years old, her brave mother sought safety at one of these centres, and she was nurtured by her as well.
Under the watchful eye of the home’s kind and straightforward director Joyce (Leah Purcell), Shayda puts up a brave front for the gullible Mona and seizes little moments of self-worth and sanity in her everyday existence.
She seeks to blend in with the other inmates of the shelter while also getting ready for Nowruz, the Persian New Year, even though she occasionally encounters subtle bigotry and discrimination.
We see, in poignant sequences, Shayda’s phone conversations with her anxious mother in Iran: Though outmoded, she worries for Shayda and demands that she go back to her husband Hossain (Osamah Sami) to stop more rumours and animosity from conceited friends and family.
“Well, he’s a good dad,” she naively claims. Surprisingly, the law supports this harmful way of thinking by allowing Hossain, who is determined to go back to Iran, unsupervised visiting privileges, which undermine Shayda’s newly discovered sense of independence and security.
Initially, Hossain adopts a deceptive persona of a transformed individual who only desires to spend time with his loved ones and uphold the aspirations of his spouse, a previous scholar whose scholarship was sadly cancelled due to orthodox traditions.
Niasari skillfully and methodically weaves a thriller-like quality into “Shayda” while retaining the spontaneity and awareness of a documentarian in his filming.
The film’s opening sequence, in which Shayda tries to acquaint Mona with the various safety checkpoints at an airport in case Hossain tries to kidnap her, is a wonderful illustration of this verité-style intensity, thanks to DP Sherwin Akbarzadeh’s smooth and immersive camera movements.
In other scenes, the director takes similar care to ensure that Hossain’s concept remains as horrifying as his visual representation does, as we follow Shayda’s increasing unease through shopping centres, parks, and nightclubs as she confides in her free-spirited friend Elly (Rina Mousavi) and grows fond of Elly’s relative Farhad (Mojean Aria).
These two characters, like the other disturbed women at the shelter, appear a little undeveloped, like they were shoehorned into a convoluted story as convenient mouthpieces.
However, Ebrahimi overcomes these little flaws with a performance that is surprisingly straightforward, even regal, in capturing Shayda’s internalised struggles through quiet moments that require little more than a tender glance or a pregnant pause.
Zahednia, who plays the silently traumatised Mona, is equally remarkable. Niasari obviously has a way with kid performers. Sami is a monster who is both terrifyingly real and unsettlingly recognisable.
But “Shayda’s” greatest strength is its distinctly feminine spirit of tenacity, which runs wild and free in this exciting premiere.