Young mother Maryam is getting ready one morning, trying to balance preparing her child for the day while her husband begins an exercise session.
But then her husband calls out from the other room, trapped underneath a heavy weight he was lifting. His life in the balance, Maryam initially makes a few attempts to help, but the weights are too heavy and stuck. She watches as he dies before her eyes — giving her a moral dilemma, and a chance to remake her life.
Written and directed by Kaveh Mazaheri and co-produced by the Iranian Youth Cinema Society, this short drama seems, on its surface, a domestic-slice-of-life story disrupted by a quiet yet undeniably disturbing incident. But as it progresses, it becomes a fascinating character portrait of a woman at a crossroads in her life, presented with an opportunity to change everything.
The film rests on lead actor Sonia Sanjari, who plays Maryam with a remarkable silence and stillness. With both precision and economy, she portrays Maryam as a compliant woman with little voice in her life, who has always done what she has been told to do without much recourse for protest or complaint.
Around Sanjari’s top-notch performance, Mazaheri constructs a remarkably intelligent, uniquely engaging film, making strong and memorable directorial decisions at every turn. As the film opens, the documentary-like camera chooses to focus on the husband, as he lobs a stream of small yet persistent demands for Maryam’s caretaking as she tries to get her toddler to eat.
But the film shifts to Maryam at its pivotal moment, the camera and editing chooses to stay on Maryam’s face, the moment capturing the complexity of Maryam’s response: first her ineffectual helplessness, and then her removed, distant blankness as her husband dies before her eyes. Her multifaceted, layered reaction says much about not just who she is, but what her life with her husband was like for her. It is a masterful acting moment, handled with great delicacy, honesty and bravery by a gifted actress.
After witnessing what she does, Maryam proceeds through the rest of the day, carrying her secret. The discrepancy between what she and the audience knows and the everyday life around her creates a narrative question of what she will do with her secret. But it is a testament to the film’s almost forensic emotional precision that it doesn’t drive the film forward in a traditional way.
Instead, its interest remains with Maryam, as well as the quotidian rhythms and concerns of Iranian life and the way women proceed within it, fitting themselves around persistent, small pressures that, collectively, exert a great weight — a weight that perhaps pushes Maryam to make her final decision.
Situating “Retouch” in a rich and fascinating film tradition like Iran’s is beyond the scope of a review, but like many of Iran’s greatest films, it operates from both an objective, dispassionate distance and a subtle, understated intimacy, using both storytelling lenses to provoke questions, create productive tensions and test compassion.
An uneasy, riveting triumph of short-form storytelling, the emotions “Retouch” evokes are complex and unforgettable as the story, as it brings up disbelief, moral horror and yet genuine heartbreak as well.