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‘The Seed of the Sacred Fig’ Review: Mohammad Rasoulof Stuns Again

‘The Seed of the Sacred Fig’ Review: Mohammad Rasoulof Stuns Again

Out of all the major filmmakers to emerge from Iran over the past decades, Mohammad Rasoulof has certainly grown into the most overtly political. His finely crafted dramas, including the superb 2020 Berlin Golden Bear Winner There Is No Evil, make no qualms about tackling his country’s oppressive regime and religious theocracy head-on, pulling few punches in their depictions of a nation under siege.

This clearly explains why the director has been targeted by the Iranian authorities since 2010, when he was first arrested along with Jafar Panahi for shooting a movie in secret. After receiving a six-year prison sentence, he eventually got out on bail — only to be officially banned from leaving the country in 2017. He was arrested again in 2022, spent months in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, received an eight-year sentence in 2024 and finally decided to flee the country earlier this month, arriving just in time to premiere his latest film in Cannes.

The Seed of the Sacred Fig

The Bottom Line

Overty political and deeply personal.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Misagh Zare, Soheila Golestani, Mahsa Rostami, Setareh Maleki, Niousha Akshi, Reza Akhlaghi
Director, screenwriter: Mohammad Rasoulof

2 hours 48 minutes

It’s worth mentioning all of this because that new film — the dark and sprawling 3-hour family drama, The Seed of the Sacred Fig — is very much about Iran’s draconian legal system and what it does to the human psyche, which is obviously a subject Rasoulof knows intimately. But instead of turning the camera on himself, in the way that fellow Iranian auteur Panahi has done over the years in his various meta-fictions (This Is Not a Film, No Bears, Taxi), the director has decided to focus on the very kinds of people who have been making his life hell.

Shot clandestinely and set for the most part in one somber Tehran apartment, Sacred Fig depicts a family of four whose patriarch, Iman (Misagh Zare), has just been named an investigating judge — a promotion that promises him both a bigger flat and a better place in Iran’s judicial hierarchy. Supported, at least initially, by his thoughtful wife, Najmeh (Soheila Golestani), and his two teenage daughters, Rezvan (Mahsa Rostami) and Sana (Setareh Maleki), Iman and his clan seem set for a comfy bourgeois life.

But there are immediately cracks in the surface, beginning with the fact that Iman’s new job requires him to carry a loaded gun for protection — a gun that, as with any good Chekhovian plot, will be put to use later on. There’s also Iman’s colleague, Ghaderi (Reza Akhlaghi), who advises him to sign a detainee’s death sentence without even reviewing the file, which is the way things seem to function in their department. And finally, there’s the eruption of the massive youth protest movement in late 2022 following the death of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for refusing to wear a hijab.

As much as Iman wants to protect himself and his household, the world keeps banging at their door — whether through online videos the girls watch on their phones, news reports that reveal certain facts but are basically state-sponsored propaganda, or the actual sound of people shouting in the streets below. In a sense, Sacred Fig is a home invasion movie in which the family’s sanctity, and ultimately its physical safety, is threatened by outside forces tearing them apart from the inside as well.

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The horror movie motif takes over in the film’s latter half when it becomes clear that the monster is, in fact, Iman himself. Rasoulof never disguises his hatred for the judge, even if he first depicts him as a man caught between pressures at the office and at home, where the promise of a better apartment is a major boon for the family. But the director is also clear about whom we’re dealing with here: a man who, unlike the judge serving before him, has few qualms about sending an unknown felon to the gallows. Rasoulof couldn’t be more blunt about the fact that success within Iran’s imposing bureaucracy means crushing other people, and sometimes walking over their corpses.

We get firsthand accounts of that from all the 2022 protest videos Rezvan and Sana share behind their parents’ backs — videos where police and pro-regime thugs beat students to a pulp, leaving them bleeding out or dead on the sidewalk. The violence eventually enters the home when Rezvan’s free-spirited college friend, Safdaf (Niousha Akhshi), gets hit in the face by buckshot at a demonstration, leaving her disfigured and possibly blind in one eye. Rasoulof lingers over her wounds for a long time as Najmeh painstakingly removes each metal ball with tweezers, dumping them into a sink drenched in blood.

Again, we’re in a horror movie, but the horror is what the Iranian government is doing to its own people. Rasoulof doubles down on that theme when Iman’s address is leaked online by protestors, forcing him to suddenly flee the city along with his wife and daughters. Meanwhile, the pistol he was given for protection has gone missing, and it’s possible any one of the three women in his clan are behind it. The director continues to drum up the suspense when they all arrive at Iman’s childhood country home in the mountains, where things take a turn for the dramatic and several guns come back into play.

Is it all a bit over the top? Certainly. Is it worse than what’s happening on Tehran’s streets? No. As Rasoulof intercuts real footage and fiction, we realize that what the family is going through is an extension of what the entire country has been facing. The protests following Mahsa Amini’s death were all about women fighting for their freedom against a brutal and oppressive hierarchy, which is exactly what the young Rezvan and Sana — and eventually their mother as well — are driven to do against Iman.

That The Secret of the Sacred Fig starts off like the kind of subtle, intricately made chamber piece that Iranian cinema has been known for, whether in films like Close-Up or A Separation, only to veer toward something much more horrific, is thus only natural. Given that he’s one of the leading chroniclers of his country’s dire state, and one whose own life and security hang in the balance with each new movie, it’s hard right now to imagine Rasoulof making anything else.

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