The opening shot hovers over a major metropolis at night, illuminated by the evening traffic flowing along a network of freeways leading out to the suburbs. Dominating the foreground are the upper floors of the Milad Tower, one of the tallest in the world, a multi-use structure, sprouting from Tehran’s International Trade and Convention Center, housing a five-star hotel and supporting, at its top, the antenna of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, the state-owned media monopoly. The city, for most American viewers, has such overwhelming rhetorical power—as a metonym for Iran, for a republic governed by religious leaders, a repressive regime, a regional foe—that the name blinds us mostly to the physical reality and individual lives that actually embody it. This shot seems designed to break through that ignorance, as well as to frame what follows as a tale of modernity and media, media with a unified message, rooted in traditions that can address contemporary life and desires, but cannot be allowed to be modified by them. Not exactly.

A succession of shots pares back the traffic to a single police car, lights flashing. Maybe we think it’s heading for the scene of a crime. But it eventually pulls up in front of a television station, and three women in hijabs step out, one in handcuffs. The crime has already been committed by Maryam, a young woman convicted of murdering her husband during an argument over her pregnancy. As a temporary wife, she was not supposed to get pregnant. Though she still claims Zia’s death was an accident, Maryam is now sentenced to death by hanging, in accordance with the reigning law of an eye for an eye. Further, her family owes blood money to Zia’s family, namely his only daughter, Mona, a former friend who apparently has plans to head overseas for a life of luxury. Fortunately for Maryam, and for unknown reasons, her story was chosen to headline a live television show, The Joy of Forgiveness, which is about to start shooting upstairs. All she has to do is beg Mona’s forgiveness over the course of an hour and, if she’s successful, Mona will grant clemency, sparing Maryam the death penalty, while her blood money may be paid in part or in full by the show’s sponsors, depending on how many millions of viewers text in with votes of yay or nay. Maryam doesn’t have to beg the whole time, actually, as The Joy of Forgiveness is actually a variety show, so there will be musical performances and short documentaries to break up the time and the mood, which is necessary, since tonight is the winter solstice, Yalda, when Iranians gather with their families to celebrate and are likely looking for some lighter, more hopeful fare. 

“I can say anything?” Maryam asks the show’s director as she arrives in the studio, suggesting not just trouble, an opportunity to reveal lurid details about Zia or Mona, or what she might consider new exculpatory evidence in her favor, but also an element of power and self-determination. Having lost her child, she is resolved to die herself, and it seems she’s equally resolved to use this public opportunity to correct the spectacle that’s been made of her case, which positioned her as a heartless gold digger, and Mona, who stands to inherit the entirety of her father’s PR empire, as a grieving orphan. 

But power, Maryam’s and Mona’s, is more limited than it seems. The show is about forgiveness, after all, and there is substantial pressure applied to both women—mostly by men, with a quiet authority that belies their unquestionable cultural and social dominance—to conform to that goal, regardless of the leeway the women are given to express themselves by the seeming unpredictability of live television, and regardless of the case that has preceded the show with all its evidence and arguments. To some extent, then, the human drama between Maryam and Mona is secondary to the larger picture of social control exerted by the show, its medium, its related institutions (namely the legal system), and the underlying ideological forces that create these conditions. If the film feels too orchestrated at times, particularly in its latter third, what might be seen as narrative manipulation elsewhere proves itself to be somewhat futile or moot with respect to the patriarchal power the film is set to critique. Regardless, even on its surface, Yalda is a fast-paced and well-acted drama that remains tense even to its long, final shot.