Cannes 2024 review: ‘The Seed of the Sacred Fig’

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Mohammad Rasoulof examines Iran’s contemporary tensions through the internalization of turmoil by a family of four. It’s a suspenseful and bold call to arms for those who refuse to sit down and accept tyranny.

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Last year, dissident Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof was unable to accept his Cannes invitation to join the Un Certain Regard Jury because of imposed travel restrictions.

This year, he was able to present his new film, The Seed of the Sacred Fig, in person. But not without a gripping off-screen story. Two weeks ago, Rasoulof clandestinely fled Iran upon receiving an eight-year prison sentence for standing up to the brutal theocratic regime. His nail-biting escape led him to Germany to finish the edit of the film, and up until a few days ago, no one was sure whether his escape meant that he would show up in person.

When he did, the response was overwhelming. The Grand Theatre Lumière gave him a moving and lengthy 15 minute plus standing ovation, one which would have carried on had Rasoulof not taken the microphone to thank all those who made the film possible – including the ones who could not make it. He was referring to many of his crew, as well as his two lead actors Misagh Zare and Soheila Golestani. Both are currently banned from leaving Iran, with Golestani having been jailed two years ago amid Women, Life, Freedom protests.

It felt like a historical moment, a meaningful act of bravery in the name of justice, rebellion, and art.

Set during the 2022 protests, The Seed of the Sacred Fig centres on a family of four. Patriarch Iman (Misagh Zare) has just earned a promotion after 20 years of loyal service as a civil servant. It’s not the role he aspired to (judge for Tehran’s revolutionary court) but the one he must accept. He will be an investigator, a role that comes with a pistol. The weapon is for protection, as he will be obtaining confessions and signing off death sentences for alleged dissidents.

His wife, Najmeh (Soheila Golestani), is happy for her husband and excited that the new role will lead to a more affluent life for her family. Their teen daughters Rezvan (Mahsa Rostami) and Sana (Setareh Maleki) don’t know what their father does, but are soon clued up, and given a strict set of instructions from their mother. They need to be “irreproachable”, as the slightest slip would have major consequences for their father’s career.

When the daughters’ friend Sadaf (Niousha Akhshi) is hit with buckshot after a school raid, the rule-abiding household begins to unravel. The girls are ready to embrace the freedom they witness in social media videos of the protests, and by implicating their mother in helping Sadaf, a rebellious germ starts to sprout. This is seen on screen in one of the film’s most powerful and upsetting scenes; the camera focuses on Najmeh removing bullet fragments from Sadaf’s swollen face, before dropping them in a pristine white sink. You hear the weight of the buckshot and behold the splatter of blood that stains the basin. It’s an indelible moment that signals that from that point on, there’s no going back.

Things get even more tense when Iman’s gun disappears from his bedroom nightstand. Should his superiors find out, he would be publicly shamed and punished with a three-year sentence. 

Paranoia sets in, and is heightened when the personal details of certain officials are made public online. This leads Iman to turn on his family.

Rasoulof shared that he had the idea for The Seed of the Sacred Fig while in prison. One of his jailors handed him pens so he could write. Initially wary of this gesture, he refused the gift. However, he did get to talk to the prison officer, who told him – in reference to the main prison gate: “I don’t know when it’ll be my turn to hang from that gate, as my family keep on asking me what I do for a living, and I can’t answer them.”

By examining the country’s contemporary tensions through the internalization of said turmoil by a family of four, the director’s allegory casts each of the family members as strands of modern Iran. Iman embodies the paranoid totalitarian regime; Najmeh is sclerosed in the role of a conservative-minded but shackled woman, who deep down knows that her daughters’ rebellion represents progress; Rezvan represents change waiting to happen; and Sana realises through her sister’s dissent that she too can no longer “sit down”.

By following the story of these characters who double as cyphers of Iranian society, Rasoulof deftly escalates things from a claustrophobic domestic drama into a thrilling psychodrama with shades of horror, as Sana is cast as the final girl who must free her family. She must make it out of a literal and metaphorical labyrinthine ruin in the last act for solidarity and hope to survive.

It is a bold narrative trajectory that serves as a direct response to the wave of protests that erupted in Iran after the death of Masha Amini, with real phone footage censored by Iran’s government interspersed throughout the film, as well as a call to arms for those who refuse to accept control. Especially when that control is insidiously concealed as love.

We’re fortunate to have filmmakers who dare to challenge oppression, as well as film festivals that programme their work. The Seed of the Sacred Fig is an important outcry against tyranny and misogyny. And beyond the socio-political context of the film – which may lead some to cynically suggest that any Palme win come festival-end limits itself to an act of supporting the director’s artistic defiance and nothing more – Rasoulof has delivered a suspenseful film that boldly stands as one of this year’s very best Competition films.

The Seed of the Sacred Fig premieres at the Cannes Film Festival in Competition.

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