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Screening Love The Forbidden in Rakhshan Banietemad’s Nargess (1992) 

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Screening Love The Forbidden in Rakhshan Banietemad’s Nargess (1992) 

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Before the narrative even begins, Rakhshan Banietemad’s Nargess of 1992 engages with the theme of love. On the screen, accompanied by the melodic score, a close-up of a conventional bride and groom figurine appears, dancing. As the credits roll, photo scraps materialize on the black-and-white screen. These images are of the couple whose story we will soon witness. As the credits continue, the camera zooms out allowing us to see the dancing figurine in its entirety, protected by the dome-shaped glass cover. The transparent shield momentarily protects this imaginary couple from the realities of the outside world. Here, Banietemad uses symbolic imagery in the opening of the film to comment on love, but as the plot unfolds, these same images return to the screen to mean something entirely different.  

This becomes one of the ways in which Nargess exposes a love story that is not only unconventional, but also culturally taboo. The plastic bride and groom figurine for example, at first sight, stands for the image of love and stability, represented by marriage. However, very quickly this facade is broken down. In a later scene, we watch the Adel (Abolfazl Poorarab) character sifting through his bag of stolen goods, taking out this same figurine from his bag. The figurine that represents marriage in the opening credits foreshadows the tragic love story that is about to unfold, yoked with issues of gender, class, and crime. As the credits come to an end, the music stops, the screen turns dark, and we watch Adel panting, running as he escapes from the cops. Before the love story fully begins, it is interrupted by the harsh realities of its external environment, metaphorically shattering the glass shield the bride and groom have been momentarily protected by. This pre-opening scene is significant; it relies on conventional depictions of love pushing the boundaries of what is permissible in Iran. However, while the imagery and symbolism allude to a typical romance, the narrative could not be further from that depiction.  

Banietemad’s Nargess tells a complex and heart wrenching love story between three people. The film is about the triangular relationship between the petty-thief Adel, his older ex-lover and partner in crime Afagh (Farimah Farjami) and the innocent younger woman Nargess (Atefeh Razavi) who Adel falls in love with. Upon meeting Nargess, Adel decides to put away his ill habits and to ask Nargess for her hand in marriage. To do so, he needs the support of his mother (who has shunned him). In fear of losing him forever, Afagh decides to play the role of the maternal figure, staged in front of Nargess and her family. This comes with a lifetime promise: to never leave her. Nargess, who is unaware of Adel’s complicated past, agrees to marry him.  

Nargess marks Banietemad’s explicit engagement with the subject of love and female desire; a trend that continues to shape her later works too. The filmmaker brings to the screen unconventional love stories, but ones that still rely on the conventions of cinematic language. Films such as Nargess, conform to the visualization and conventions of love through close-ups, score, lighting, and gaze to create intimacy, enabling Banietemad to boldly envisage love on the screen and firmly push the boundaries of what is permissible in post-revolutionary Iranian cinema. The complicated love stories we watch throughout Banietemad’s cinema reflect their cultural and political contexts. In relaying them, Banietemad confronts the restrictions of censorship and dares to bring love onto our screens, but also shows us how these stories are always intertwined with issues of gender and class. To fully grasp the historical significance of Banietemad’s Nargess, I begin by first contextualising the film. From there, we think about love more generally across Iranian art and cinema, reflecting on the restrictions imposed by state censorship. How do we screen love in a nation that forbids it? Finally, we return to Nargess; closely analysing the ways in which Banietemad engages with a forbidden love story, and the film’s influence on her later works.  

Contextualizing Banietemad’s Nargess of 1992 

When we speak of Nargess we speak of Iran’s cinema in 1992, a time where any depiction of love was seen as highly controversial. About Nargess, Asal Bagheri posits that it is “the first film after the Revolution that is based on a social taboo.”1Asal Bagheri, “The Blue Veiled,” 142. The post-revolutionary ideals that defined the country’s cinema were still fully intact and very much enforced, producing a cinema that had to abide by Islamic laws and distance itself from any form of ‘Westernization.’ Many Iranian film scholars have commented on the significance of Banietemad’s Nargess in cementing her reputation as a filmmaker in Iran. Winning the first prize for Nargess in 1991, Banietemad becomes the first woman to “garner the award for a feature film.”2Hamid Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, 159. “This recognition,” Hamid Naficy says, “corroborated her status not as a woman filmmaker but as a top Iranian filmmaker.”3Ibid, 159. In her discussion of the reception of Nargess, Shiva Rahbaran regards the film as “the vanguard of post-revolutionary Iranian cinema.”4Shiva Rahbaran, Iranian Cinema Uncensored, 1. Hamid Reza Sadr considers the film as “daring,” and as “one of the first films after the revolution to focus on sexual relationships.”5Hamid Reza Sadr, Iranian Cinema: A Political History, 259.

The significance of Nargess rests on a number of reasons, marking it as a hallmark within women’s post-revolutionary filmmaking. Nargess introduced Banietemad as one of Iran’s most prominent filmmakers, both nationally and internationally. Most importantly however, is the way in which Nargess shifts Banietemad’s storytelling and filmmaking. As Maryam Ghorbankarimi argues the film is the “turning point in Bani-Etemad’s career.”6Maryam Ghorbankarimi, A Colourful Presence, 67. Ghorbankarimi continues that “the unifying use of cinematic language and the thematic connections between all her films since Nargess define her as an auteur-director.”7Ibid, 67-68. Her earlier satirical narrative films of Off Limits (1987), Yellow Canary (1988) and Foreign Currency (1989), however bold in addressing social issues, do not rely on women as key agents of their narratives. Banietemad’s reputation as a filmmaker shifts after 1992, where she addresses women’s issues directly, and centers their stories within her films. Also, as Bagheri notes, Banietemad’s “evolution as a social realist director”8Bagheri, “The Blue Veiled,” 144. begins with Nargess, but what is significant is the way in which these stories are combined with a “romantic style,”9Ibid, 144.  using love as their anchor to explore intersections of contemporary Iranian society. 

In addition to centralizing women in her films, Banietemad begins to play with the depiction of sexual love and desire on the Iranian screen, themes regarded as forbidden and taboo in the country’s cinema. This means love outside of marriage is often difficult to visualize and even speak about in post-revolutionary Iranian cinema, especially in its earlier years. Equally, the portrayal of women as sexual beings with desire is not favourable. What stands out in Nargess is its delicate negotiation with censorship codes in a way that dares to depict romantic and sexual love between its characters. As Hamid Dabashi notes “Bani-Etemad’s semiotic sense of names, shapes, objects, and colors assumes a mythical proportion when it comes to the point of visually insinuating moments of intimacy between a man and a woman as permitted on an Islamic screen.”10Hamid Dabashi, “Body-less Faces,” 371.  The cinematic language, along with the symbolic motifs Banietemad employs in her films become the driver of her plot, and the tools that enable her to resist censorship and tell her story.  

By looking at the depiction of the film’s female characters, along with the treatment of love and desire, this chapter considers how Nargess visualizes the taboo through cinematic elements and narrative. Ultimately, this chapter demonstrates how the film tells a love story that is unconventional, challenging many of our expectations and perceptions of what love is in an Islamic and Iranian post-revolutionary society. Importantly, Nargess does this by bringing to the fore central female characters that are dynamic and complex, pulling them from the margins of society to the centre of the narrative.   

The symbolism that has come to define second wave Iranian cinema has given the nation its own visual brand. Often, ambiguity and metaphor are employed to both challenge and bypass state censorship. As Negar Mottahedeh argues, on the international stage, Iranian cinema is known for its artistic expression that often blurs the lines and boundaries of fiction and non-fiction.11Negar Mottahedeh, Displaced Allegories, 15.  The symbolic and metaphoric references, along with the poetic nature of Iranian cinema, have become a trademark of the nation’s cinema post-1979. This stylistic branding, I argue is far more than an artistic choice. It is out of necessity – a language that Iranian filmmakers often resort to as a way to cope with censorship, but as I will discuss later, it is more than that.  

While Iranian cinema faces censorship laws that limit its content to one that abides by the guidelines of the Islamic Republic, the codes and lines are not always as clear as they may seem. About censorship laws in her country, Banietemad says: “The Ershad never allows any freedom to anyone. We had to fight for our freedom. I push the boundaries; they wouldn’t give me freedom as a gift – neither to me nor to any other artist.”12Rahbaran, Iranian Cinema Uncensored, 133-4.  She continues, “I want to point out that there are discrepancies – gaps – between the official line of the Ershad and the reality of film-making in Iran. It is within these gaps that we search for our freedom and try to gain it bit by bit.”13Ibid, 134.  It is between these inconsistencies and gaps that filmmakers seek a path; to push against the boundaries of what is permissible.   

The image of the Iranian woman on screen – in Iran and outside – has changed immensely. As well, the ways in which love and intimacy show up on the screen, despite continued control and censorship, have evolved. Writing on intimacy in Iranian cinema, Michelle Langford states that it is “thanks to filmmakers like Rakhshan Banietemad, who are willing to push the representation of intimacy to the very limits of censorship, [that] viewers can finally experience the much-anticipated and long-withheld embrace of a husband and wife.14Michelle Langford, “Tales and the Cinematic Divan,” 72.  Langford here refers to the embrace of Nobar (Fatemeh Motamed-Arya) and Reza (Farhad Aslani) from Banietemad’s latest feature Tales (2014). By contextualizing Iranian cinema and reading it within its own time, we can better understand the cinematic shifts ignited by filmmakers such as Banietemad. In a cinema with laws against a close-up of a woman, Nargess becomes a trailblazer. What is special about films like Nargess is the way in which they have potential to shift the trajectory of films about women in Iran, bringing onto our screens in 1992, women whose stories, voices, and images have thus far been marginalized and ignored.

Though social issues are a consistent interest of Banietemad throughout her entire career, the turn to more controversial issues around gender and sexuality and their intersection with class politics are much more prominent and bolder in her works since Nargess. The love story that Banietemad tells in Nargess subverts ideas of femininity and masculinity through the intersections of age, power, crime, and class. The moments of romance peppered throughout the film offer cultural critique, but while they engage with the harsh realities of Iranian society, they also always manage, even if short-lived, to convey loves stories in a cinema that works hard to forbid them. In this conversation about love on the post-revolutionary screen, it is worthwhile to turn briefly to its depiction in Iranian art and cinema more broadly.  

The Depiction of Love and Desire in Iranian Cinema  

While Persian literature has traditionally dealt with the themes of love and desire, under the current Iranian regime there are strict Islamic guidelines and laws to follow. For example, “unrelated men and women are forbidden to touch one another.”15Shahla Haeri, “Sacred Canopy,” 114. In addition, under Islamic law in Iran, women must be veiled in all public spaces. Shahla Haeri poses an important question: “how, then, can one make movies based on love and carnal desire without having the lovers even touch each other’s hand?”16Ibid, 114.  Post-revolutionary Iranian cinema has had to negotiate with censorship codes and find ways to represent love and desire. As Haeri argues: “although the Islamic legal discourse has reasserted itself after the revolution of 1979 and appears to have become dominant, in fact the ‘erotic’ discourse that is ever so subtly embedded in Persian poetry and popular culture is alive and possibly thriving.”17Ibid, 114.  She describes the historical tension between the “legal discourse that restricts gender relations” and the “erotic discourse that subverts the very same regulations.”18Ibid, 114-115.   

 Reflecting on the role of women in Persian literary practice, Farzaneh Milani asks: “what are the ways in which gender and space intersect in the Iranian literary arena?”19Farzaneh Milani, “Voyeurs, Nannies, Words, and Gypsies,” 107.   She continues: “if seclusion is an attempt to erase women from the public scene, how, then, have authors of numerous Iranian romances reconciled narrative imperatives with cultural properties and constructed feminine voices and images in a sex-segregated society?”20Ibid, 107. Milani’s questions are relevant beyond literature and applicable to the nation’s post-revolutionary cinema, especially as women gain prominence both behind and in front of the camera.  

In her work on literature, Milani describes the models of virtue and femininity placed onto women; “traditionally, a virtuous woman was one who “covered her body, guarded her honor, controlled her desires, measured her words.”21Ibid, 107. The “codes of ideal femininity, masculinity, and honor [that] demanded the exclusion of women from the public sphere”22 Ibid, 107. are reminiscent of the same ones witnessed in the early years of the Islamic Revolution where women were systematically pushed out of sight. It is with the inclusion of characters such as Afagh, who are nowhere close to that image of honour and virtue, that cinema begins to shift not only the representation of femininity and womanhood, but also begins to question these ideals entirely. Milani speaks of a “deep-seated desire to maintain strong sexual boundaries” and “to restrict women’s mobility”23Ibid, 123. to restore social order. If this is true in literary practices, then I would argue that it is enforced even more vigorously in cinema because of its visual nature.  

How then, do filmmakers engage with and visualize love and desire? What Ziba Mir-Hosseini refers to as the “art of ambiguity” in Persian poetry offers a good starting point for us to consider. It is worth quoting her at length:  

Love has always been the main theme in Persian poetry, where it is seldom clear whether the writer is talking about divine or earthly love, or (given the absence of grammatical gender in Persian) where the “beloved” is male or female. Both the Persian language and the poetic form have allowed writers to maintain and even work with these ambiguities. The art of ambiguity (iham), perfected in the work of classical poets such as Hafez, has spoken to generations of Iranians, including the present one.24Ziba Mir-Hosseini, “Negotiating the Forbidden” 694.  

The art of ambiguity that Mir-Hosseini describes here is prevalent in other art forms, but especially to post-revolutionary Iranian cinema. In this cinema, the goal of censorship is to keep as far away as possible from ‘Westernization,’ to promote Islamic values, and to maintain social and political order.  

The use of allegory, through metaphors, double-entendres, symbolism, and ambiguity has always been a part of Persian literary practices and language. In a lot of ways, the open and ambiguous cinema of post-revolutionary Iran is rooted in, or at least influenced by its literary traditions. As many scholars of Iranian cinema have acknowledged, so much of the nation’s cinematic visual aesthetic is shaped by the Revolution of 1979. The iconic images and stories populating our screens are certainly influenced by poetic and linguistic traditions, yet censorship has necessitated a cinema that is implicit, coded, and ambiguous. Yet, as Langford reminds us, “it is important to recognize that for many Iranian film-makers, allegory is much more than a foil against haphazardly applied censorship rules, or an attempt to hide meaning under a veil of secrecy.”25Michelle Langford, Allegory in Iranian Cinema, 2. Here, Langford acknowledges that allegory because of “its capacity to say one thing while meaning another,”26Ibid, 2.  has “proven to be a powerful way of evading state censorship and expressing forbidden topics or issues.”27Ibid, 2.  Langford’s central argument, which is essential to our reading of Banietemad, I think highlights the relationship between the image and the audience: “allegorical aesthetics cues or prompts viewers to look for hidden meaning or to experience a film poetically beyond the literal level of story.”28 Ibid, 1.  The images on the screen invite the audience to engage with the cinematic text. This is especially relevant when we consider Banietemad’s body of work. An oeuvre expanding over four decades, relying on the stories of recurring characters that tap into our cultural memory.   

How then, do we read Banietemad’s cinema? What interests me most in the filmmaker’s works is its refusal to sit neatly into any category. Devoted to making social films, Banietemad’s expansive body of work explores a range of forms, oscillating between realist, documentary-style filmmaking to melodrama. Whether set in metropolitan Tehran, or the rural landscapes of Gilan, the director remains dedicated to those on the margins. In his discussion of Iranian cinema, Stephen Weinberger draws on two sets of films: “gentle heartwarming films”29Stephen Weinberger, “Joe Breen, The Ayatollah Khomeni, and Film Censorship,” 211.  that are not concerned with political or cultural issues; “sitting comfortably within the confines of censorship.”30 Ibid, 211.  Many of these films include the most celebrated and acclaimed of Iran’s cinema, those that fit neatly into the allegorical and ambiguous brand the nation’s cinema has garnered. Then, there is “the other type of film.” Those Weinberger refers to as a “voice of protest.” The films that stretch “the censorship systems to its limits.”31Ibid, 211.  Here, he names “Banietemad as the most prominent director of such films.”32Ibid, 211.  Banietemad utilizes cinematic codes and visuals to bypass censorship, but her commitment to social issues is never masked behind an apolitical cinema. Characters like Afagh, Nargess, and Tooba (Golab Adineh), through their complexities, social status, and circumstances indeed offer a very loud and clear voice of protest. Turning now to Nargess, we examine closely the ways in which intimacy, love, and desire are foregrounded on the post-revolutionary screen as a daring provocation that confronts Iran’s social issues.  

Forbidden Love on Banietemad’s Screen  

Banietemad’s Nargess marks a pivotal moment in the filmmaker’s career, setting the foundation for her exploration of the subject of love in her later films too. As Sadr argues, Nargess plays “with another Iranian taboo: sex between an older woman and a younger man.”33Sadr, Iranian Cinema: A Political History, 259-260.  As it will be the focus of this section, the film introduces to Iranian cinema, not only a triangular love story, but also deals with love and intimacy in a way that for its time was considered truly bold and daring. Banietemad makes space for love on the post-revolutionary screen – not an easy task, and more importantly relies on forbidden love to explore contemporary Iranian society and the intersections of gender and class.  

The film undoubtedly plays with the taboo of sex between an older woman and a younger male lover, but this love affair is further complicated through the Nargess character, who enters their dynamic. In relaying this love story, Banietemad is also invested in complicating the role of motherhood – a trend we continue to see in her later films too. Afagh, the older experienced lover (in crime and sex) must now perform the role of the maternal, but only to retain her (sexual) hold on Adel. One of the most poignant moments in establishing this polygamous exchange is the film’s Khastegari scene. Having agreed to perform the role of Adel’s mother, Afagh joins him to ask for Nargess’s hand in marriage. While this ensures an eternal bond between them, it also displays Afagh’s loyalty towards Adel.  

First, this scene establishes the polarization of its two women characters, Afagh and Nargess, operating seemingly within the paradigm of what Shahla Lahiji terms as chaste-and-unchaste representations.34Shahla Lahiji, “Chaste and Unchaste Dolls.”  An added layer to this initial representation of Nargess is her name, a type of flower, furthering her characterization as chaste/virgin. The visual construction of the two women further heightens the scene. Nargess, as is customary of the bride-to-be, enters the small and humble sitting room carrying tea on a tray. The camera captures her as she pauses by the door, quietly greeting her guests. The camera then cuts to Afagh, who looks up, not responding. Nargess offers tea, first to Afagh and then to Adel. Here for the first time the three appear in the same cinematic frame, visually depicting their complex triangular relationship. Banietemad uses light and dark colours to mark the two women. Once Nargess is seated, the conversation begins. Nargess’s mother asks Afagh, “Ma’am, what does your son do?” The camera here shifts to Afagh, as she looks up, asking in distraught, “my son?” In this moment, the film uses the information that is available to the audience to create pathos for the Afagh character. While to Nargess and her family, Afagh is Adel’s mother, those watching are fully aware of their romantic intertwinement. To further comment on the emotional disturbance experienced by Afagh, Banietemad uses her camera to fully isolate the character for a brief moment and to juxtapose her facial expression with the celebration of the wedding. Once the agreement has been reached, the sound of drums and wedding music can be heard, yet the camera remains focused on Afagh: dressed in black as if in mourning. The scene then cuts to the next shot, where we see the drums, and Nargess dressed in white, as a bride. Up to this moment, we have only been introduced to Nargess and Afagh in separate scenes. Their first encounter with one another is Afagh’s performance of motherhood, and with this, Banietemad complicates their already complex polygamous relationship. The two women are contrasted through Banietemad’s camera in this scene, yet, through their class status, they are brought under the same roof (and within the same marriage).  

Afagh’s performance of motherhood is out of necessity and functions in a strategic way to ensure a continuity in her relationship with Adel. But it is worth reading this within Banietemad’s broader representations of motherhood too. The director’s corpus offers a nuanced reading of motherhood, and we see this in films such as Blue Veiled (1995), The May Lady (1999), Under the Skin of the City (2001), Mainline (2006),and Tales. While motherhood is not the central theme of Nargess, the way in which Afagh navigates the role foreshadows the director’s later works. Afagh’s role playing here facilitates the marriage and brings Nargess into their dynamic. It is only after Adel’s first arrest since his marriage with Nargess that she finds out about his criminal past. Returning home from prison, Nargess finds Afagh waiting by the door. Adel has warned Nargess to stay away from Afagh, which adds to the suspense of this scene. The scene cuts to Nargess, on the floor pleading and crying, asking Afagh why she never disclosed the truth about her ‘son’ and his life of crime. In response, Afagh, turning to face Nargess says: “this is just the beginning. When I was your age, I had a train track of stories behind me.”  

The next scene is of the two women, in Nargess’s small bedroom: Afagh lying down on the mattress, and Nargess sitting next to her, the two engaged in conversation. Up until this moment, the film has drawn on vivid distinctions between its two women characters. In this key scene however, Banietemad’s cinematic frame creates a space that uses class and gender politics to bring together in the intimate setting of the bedroom, the characters of Afagh and Nargess. Here, along with Nargess, we listen to Afagh relay her past. Banietemad’s Nargess relies on pathos as a strong tool to convey an emotional response, and despite framing Afagh as an outcast in society, offers her screen time. Through their homosocial bond, the scene builds an intimacy between the two women. The narrative and the camera also bring Nargess and Afagh under the same roof, and within the same cinematic frame. However, there is a sexual undertone at play too. Afagh, who has played the maternal role, has now entered the bedroom of the couple. Significantly, it is the homosocial nature of the scene, shared between the two women, that enables Banietemad to film this. Adel’s absence allows the director to escape any hassle from the authorities. Nonetheless, despite his physical absence, it is not lost for the viewers that the only point of connection between the two women is Adel; a man both women have had sex with. This sharing of this intimate (and sexualized) space tightens the triangular relationship and blurs the lines of their polygamous relationship – and further enters the realm of the ‘forbidden.’ 

Despite censorship and bans by authorities, expressions of sexual and romantic interest somehow find themselves on the Iranian screen. Banietemad’s cinema takes this a step further by foregrounding characters from the margins of Iranian society. Love stories then function as an essential gateway into gender and class politics, in such a way that subverts binaries and depictions of good/bad and chaste/unchaste. Instead, Banietemad’s screen brings forth daring characters that step outside of their prescribed roles. As Naficy points out: “casting a woman as an expert thief was something new, pushing casting boundaries.”35Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, 158.  As discussed above, Banietemad not only goes against casting conventions but more importantly includes in meaningful ways marginalized characters such as Afagh as central to her stories. In one of the film’s most economic scenes, we watch Afagh as she applies lipstick upon Adels’ visit. The guidelines of censorship (especially at that time) prohibit the use of make-up and close-ups, adding to the importance of this scene. Here, Afagh is performing what is prohibited, aligning her with her cinematic role.  Her application of lipstick also functions as a reclamation of her sexuality (for Adel). But the scene also furthers our sympathy for the older criminal woman. Banietemad speaks to the construction of this scene and its significance:  

Many factors are involved in creating a scene in a film: script, performance, lighting, sound, set design, and so on. Directing is about bringing all of these together to help create that moment the filmmaker is after. In my opinion, one of the most important elements of this scene was its location. A hidden upstairs room that faces the alley, with a wide mat hung from the large window and light peeking through the window—this helped convey Afagh’s lonely and sad life, and her corrupt relationship with the outside world.36Armatage & Khosroshahi, “An Interview with Rakhshan Banietemad,” 144.

In fact, as Banietemad herself describes, there is a lot happening in this sequence. The mise-en-scene makes visible not only Afagh’s loneliness, but also her class status. The tight space of the room visually marks her as an outcast. These cinematic conventions create a sense of closeness and sympathy towards the Afagh character. But there is also an element of agency here. Rahbaran describes Nargess as a “film that not only deals with woman’s sexuality and lust but goes a step further and represents the male protagonist as the sex object of that woman,”37Rahbaran, Iranian Cinema Uncensored, 134.  reversing more traditional gender roles. This scene dares to acknowledge Afagh’s desire to be desired. While the filmmaker herself pushes censorship codes by having her character perform the forbidden (through the application of lipstick), Afagh though heartbroken, reaches for her lipstick, claiming her agency and sexuality.  

With Nargess, Baneitemad challenges traditional gender roles, but this complex love affair also distorts the conventions of love and romance. And it does this in such a way that reminds us of the fragility of the polygamous marriage which is further complicated by class politics. The film’s opening sequence, along with its credits (as discussed earlier) momentarily indulge in the conventions of love. Nargess opens with images and a score that convey the visual and sonic codes of romance. On the screen, as the credits roll, the figurine of a bride and groom dancing to the music become metonymical for love. These figurines that seem at first as an after-thought appear later in the film. In fact, as the love story ensues, the audience is confronted with a subplot that complicates the initial setup entirely. The figurine in the opening of the film alludes to the performance of love and marriage. But as the plot unfolds, we are confronted with a love story that moves far away from the cliché depictions of romance and instead, Banietemad delves deep into the margins of Iranian society, complicated with issues of class, inequality, crime, and gender politics.  

Immediately following the credits Afagh and Adel appear on screen: running from the police in the dark. The curated images of love are quickly interrupted by the reality of the characters’ lives on the streets. They run with a stolen bag, one that carries in it the same figurine from the opening credits. The visual symbol of love is now connected with theft. But there is more to it: this figurine, protected by its glass shield, becomes the ultimate image of love that Adel aspires to. In a later scene, Adel, a man in love places the figuring next to his bed, longing for Nargess, the young woman he had met earlier. And yet, Banietemad returns to this figurine, going even further to subvert the meaning of the motif she sets up in the film’s opening. When Adel goes to price the stolen items, he is told the figurine is “worthless,” the very image of love here is stripped of its value.  

Banietemad also uses images of love to convey emotional intimacy in Nargess. In a country governed by strict censorship laws, ones that forbid women and men from touching, visual codes are key in relaying a love story. A particularly significant moment in the film is that of Adel and Nargess’s wedding night. In her pursuit of retaining Adel’s love and in accordance with her performance as the maternal figure, Afagh lends her apartment to the newly married couple on the night of their wedding. As Adel and Nargess enter the building, the sound of wedding bells and drums fill the screen. Afagh runs up the stairs to hide, watching from above as the couple walk into the flat – together. Guided by Afagh’s gaze, the camera lands on the pair of shoes left outside by the bride and groom. The shoes, black and white, symbolic of the conventions of marriage, along with the closed door make everything clear. While the censorship codes will never allow us to see what happens behind closed doors, the filmmaker leaves no doubt in our minds. Not only does Banietemad’s camera lead us to imagine what happens behind those closed doors, but she also uses this scene to delve deeper into the story. As Afagh sits on the stairs in tears and with a broken heart, the audience is transported through a flashback to witness how Afagh and Adel’s love story began.   

Weinberger calls Nargess a “social criticism and the first post-revolutionary film that tells a love story”38Weinberger, “Joe Breen, The Ayatollah Khomeni, and Film Censorship,” 211-212. Banietemad’s investment in social films has long been acknowledged by film critics and scholars. It is my contention that love is used as a powerful theme through which the director engages with and explores the nuances of her society and the barriers that exist for those on the margins. Nargess paves this path, but the director’s later films such as Blue Veiled, The May Lady and Tales are also examples of films that dare to question censorship codes, and make space, despite restrictions for love and intimacy on the Iranian screen. Throughout her career, Banietemad has found various means through which she negotiates with the red lines of censorship.  As the rules prohibit any contact between men and women, many filmmakers rely on mediators to bypass censorship. This we see in Banietemad’s Blue Veiled, where Sanobar (Baran Kosari), Nobar’s youngest sibling, is used as a mediator, sitting between the two lovers. Nobar’s little sister is used as a means to bring the couple closer, where Sanobar functions as a physical connector between the couple, creating a much more intimate atmosphere in the scene. The same technique is used in the final scene of Nargess. Standing in the busy and hostile streets of Tehran, Afagh and Adel wrestle over a bag of stolen money. As Naficy states, Banietemad “employs a mediating object to avoid male-female touching.”39 Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, 159. The luggage between the couple is used as a tool to prohibit any contact or touching between the couple: a “political balancing act.”40Ibid., 159.  The bag is used as a mediating tool to bypass censorship, but like most symbolic gestures employed by the filmmaker, this too stands to comment on societal issues. The bag standing in between Afagh and Adel is stolen money – it becomes what connects and distances the couple, and comments further on the reality of corruption and the nature of their relationship.  

In her film, The May Lady, Banietemad turns to poetry as a mediating tool to explore how Forough (Minoo Faraschi), the divorced single mother, navigates love, work, and motherhood. Banietemad uses poetry and voiceover to depict love between Forough and her lover. In fact, we never meet the male lover and only become acquainted with him through his recitation of poetry and protestations of his love for Forough. Poetry functions as the language of love, allowing the filmmaker to bypass censorship, while granting us access to Forough’s inner thoughts. An added layer to Banietemad’s negotiation with censorship is that Forough too must conciliate her son. Not only does censorship make it challenging for filmmakers to screen love in Iran, but at the intertextual level, The May Lady is also invested in questioning the parameters of love. Can Forough, a filmmaker within the film, divorced and a mother, choose to love? The absence of the male lover, replaced by poetry, functions a strategic move by Banietemad. Not only is it a mediating object then, but also one that centres Forough. By the end of the film, Forough does choose love. The May Lady, similar to Nargess and Blue Veiled uses love as a narrative trope, but one that moves beyond romance to unveil and dismantle ideas of gender and class in contemporary Iranian society.  

In her film, The May Lady, Banietemad turns to poetry as a mediating tool to explore how Forough (Minoo Faraschi), the divorced single mother, navigates love, work, and motherhood. Banietemad uses poetry and voiceover to depict love between Forough and her lover. In fact, we never meet the male lover and only become acquainted with him through his recitation of poetry and protestations of his love for Forough. Poetry functions as the language of love, allowing the filmmaker to bypass censorship, while granting us access to Forough’s inner thoughts. An added layer to Banietemad’s negotiation with censorship is that Forough too must conciliate her son. Not only does censorship make it challenging for filmmakers to screen love in Iran, but at the intertextual level, The May Lady is also invested in questioning the parameters of love. Can Forough, a filmmaker within the film, divorced and a mother, choose to love? The absence of the male lover, replaced by poetry, functions a strategic move by Banietemad. Not only is it a mediating object then, but also one that centres Forough. By the end of the film, Forough does choose love. The May Lady, similar to Nargess and Blue Veiled uses love as a narrative trope, but one that moves beyond romance to unveil and dismantle ideas of gender and class in contemporary Iranian society.  

For Dabashi, “the sheer fact of a woman telling a love story on a wide and voluptuous screen in a land of veiled faces, concealed bodies, and denied sensualities, is perhaps the most significant part”41Dabashi, “Body-less Faces,” 371.  of Banietemad’s cinema. The love scenes that Banietemad depicts in her films, however compelling, are representative of the social conditions and external factors that define them. Banietemad maintains moments in the film that visualize intimate moments between her lovers. And despite the parameters she must work within, the cinematic techniques she uses are so compelling, that for a moment, we also forget about the external factors and the realities awaiting the lovers. These scenes invite us to join the characters as they slide away, falling deep into their brief moments of tender love. Yet, as we witness in Nargess, these moments are quickly interrupted (visually and narratively) by the external factors that Banietemad is so invested in exposing. A significant scene is when Adel and Nargess, only days after their marriage begin to build their home.As the couple clean, paint, and prepare their marital home, the scene is filled with music, dancing, and laughing, codifying, and relaying their fresh love to the audience. However, the moment is soon interrupted, as reality ‘knocks’ on the door (literally shown by Afagh appearing out of nowhere). She is there to remind Adel of his promise and their agreement. She will keep his secret safe only if he visits her. Once again, Banietemad uses conventions of love to quickly expose its fragility, and to show how it is conditional. Banietemad’s cinema while daring to affirm love on the screen, uses romance to expose and relay the fragility of her characters’ lives and to delve even deeper into Iran’s class politics.   

And at times, Banietemad’s exploration of love functions almost in reverse; as a provocation for hope. In her film Tales, Banietemad brings forth what I would argue to be one of the most tender love scenes in contemporary Iranian cinema, where the unspoken emotions between Hamed (Peyman Moadi) and Sara (Baran Kosari) breaks into an intense conversation that exposes the harsh realities of life in Tehran, but more importantly the scene functions as a moment of surrender for both Sara and Hamed. Sara reappears from Banietemad’s 2006 film Mainline, where she struggles with drug addiction. She returns years later in the filmmaker’s Tales having beat her drug habit, now working at a woman’s shelter.Hamed offers taxi services for the shelter (amongst other part-time jobs). They are in the car, on their way back from the hospital to the shelter, with a young woman who has been hospitalized after a suicide attempt (working here as the mediator in the scene too). In a sudden moment, interrupting their bickering, Sara boldly asks Hamed: “do you like me”? Langford speaks to the poeticism of this sequence, where “on the surface, this scene appears to be quite conventionally driven by colloquial dialogue,” while through its “alternation of sound and silence, pace, rhythm, repetition, framing, editing, and eye-line looks” Banietemad opens the “sequence to a lyrical dimension that displaces narrative progression.”42Langford, “Tales and the Cinematic Divan,” 76.   

The space of the car furthers the confinement and intimacy of the scene. But the moving vehicle also eases the dialogue towards an explicit conversation about their interest in one another; one that reveals the anxieties of both Hamed and Sara. We learn that Sara is HIV positive. About Hamed, we learn that he has been kicked out of university for his political activism. The plight of both characters also speaks to an audience well-aware of the drug epidemic, and certainly one that bears the consequences of political repression. Tales was made under economic deprivation, social instability, and political oppression. When Hamed conveys his story, he does so in front of an audience who understands well the situation to which he speaks. Banietemad’s choice to include a love scene becomes even more powerful here, functioning as an act of resistance that dares to hope. Despite her fierce critique of social issues in Iran, the filmmaker makes room for love; a love that promises possibilities.  

Their surrendering of their feeling towards one another creates a moment of reckoning in the film, where Sara and Hamed accept themselves as deserving of love. Tales was made under the harshest of conditions, itself a labour of love. This moving vehicle becomes a symbolic gesture not only of the realities of Iranian society – carrying tales of suicide, drug addiction, political repression – but also a space that withstands these restrictions; a life that receives yet another chance to live, new possibilities for love. The vehicle moves, carrying these stories of resilience into an unknown future. Banietemad’s labour of love, captured through decades of filmmaking here reaches new heights. A cinema that has for years withstood attempts to be erased and censored, one that dares to love and be loved.  

Cite this article

Cinema Iranica (May 27, 2024) Screening Love The Forbidden in Rakhshan Banietemad’s Nargess (1992) . Retrieved from https://cinema.iranicaonline.org/article/screening-love-the-forbidden-in-rakhshan-banietemads-nargess-1992/.
"Screening Love The Forbidden in Rakhshan Banietemad’s Nargess (1992) ." Cinema Iranica - May 27, 2024, https://cinema.iranicaonline.org/article/screening-love-the-forbidden-in-rakhshan-banietemads-nargess-1992/
Cinema Iranica April 15, 2024 Screening Love The Forbidden in Rakhshan Banietemad’s Nargess (1992) ., viewed May 27, 2024,<https://cinema.iranicaonline.org/article/screening-love-the-forbidden-in-rakhshan-banietemads-nargess-1992/>
"Screening Love The Forbidden in Rakhshan Banietemad’s Nargess (1992) ." Cinema Iranica - Accessed May 27, 2024. https://cinema.iranicaonline.org/article/screening-love-the-forbidden-in-rakhshan-banietemads-nargess-1992/