“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead,” says Maurice Bendrix in Graham Greene’s novel, The End of the Affair (1951). It feels strange to be quoting this British writer when setting out on a critique of Farnoosh Samadi’s 180 Degree Rule (2020), but her debut feature emphasises this idea of the moment.
Tragedy occurs when school teacher Sara (Sahar Dolatshahi) disobeys her husband Hamed’s (Pejman Jamshidi) instructions. In his absence, it takes their daughter to a family wedding in the mountains overlooking Tehran. She’s also trusted by a young and vulnerable student that has fallen pregnant, who confides in her. Sara’s life becomes one of secrets. They are further complicated when she fabricates the lie of a hit and run incident to explain their daughter’s death to her husband. Hamed’s grief turns to vengeance when he uncovers her deceit, while the vulnerable student experiences the lack of compassion of their oppressive patriarchal society.
The beginning of Samadi’s film, the power struggle inside the home, is an arbitrary choice. The family has a past that we will learn details about in an abstract way, while predominantly looking ahead. Bendrix, the lover of the wife having an affair in Greene’s novel, is a prism for the author to express his storytelling ideas. He’s correct that a story has no beginning or end, but the power of storytelling is found in how the fate of a character can create a sense of an ending. Yet because life will go on, our lives are reduced to sub-plots in the tapestry of life.
Sara’s fate is a genuinely painful and heartbreaking experience. This is not a film that moves you to tears. Instead, it provokes a feeling of visceral emotional pain, as if your heart is being ripped out.
If the early part of the film lays the groundwork, striking a mere modest impression, the turning point comes after the tragedy of the daughter’s death. The filmmaker ratchets up the tension, Sara’s lies, sending her further down the rabbit hole, and Hamed’s grief-stricken and angry response as he begins legal proceedings against his wife increases the dramatic stakes.
Narratively uncomplicated, under Samadi’s nurturing eye, the drama’s complexity emerges from the characters’ thoughts and feelings. We can only passively empathise with Sara’s ordeal, yet this family tragedy by the closing image resonates in such a way that transcends the artificial screen. We are left reeling from drama so visceral it doesn’t feel performed. A part of us knows this is not the case, of course, but the writer-director, through her methodical and assured construction of the drama, obstructs the communication between our intellect and our emotions.
A shadow of despair shrouds 180 Degree Rule because moral ideas of accountability offer us little reassurance. The dangers of control and repression form the film’s themes and ideas and suggest the lack of compassion and understanding that condemns if one veers from the patriarchal decree. We see a society that values compliance over the human being, which echoes the irony of the current American right wing’s pro-life stance–the sanctity of the unborn child standing opposite how those outside of the womb who are, under the Trump administration, seemingly expendable in the time of COVID-19.
The story touches a raw nerve of our habitual tendency to pursue virtue through ideas that ultimately condemn them instead of embracing compassion and understanding. Samadi’s ratcheting up of the tension as we watch a silent Sara refuse to defend herself from her husband’s allegations is served by a compelling moment of revelation. We should feel provoked into contemplating the layers of guilt and morality in this film and how a person can be both guilty and a victim of another person’s, or even their society’s guilt.
180 Degree Rule is an impressive piece of filmmaking and its reliance on natural sounds in place of music positions the film as the art of filmic silence. Its impact cannot be denied, and it leaves us with the troubling thought that while not everyone is held to account, were we privy to the entirety of each conversation, or are there blind spots to our understanding? It provokes a feeling of pain, and in response, we think back over events, trying to reconcile our feelings for the characters. It’s a rare example of storytelling that can compel a feeling of loss and grief, and while we move on, having encountered this family remains a painful memory.