There’s so much to learn about Iranian schoolteacher Sara (Sahar Dolatshahi) in the opening act of Farnoosh Samadi’s feature directorial debut, “180 Degree Rule.” She’s popular, well-regarded by both her fellow teachers and her teenage students, the kind of person who gets things done, a loving mother to her young daughter Raha, and a major part of her boisterous and big family. Her relationship with her uptight husband Hamed (Pejman Jamshidi) is something different, however, and he seems to think her can-do attitude is really just nagging. No wonder her deep empathy never seems to apply to him.
In her previous series of short films, Samadi turned her attention to the kind of thorny, character-rich dramas often associated with contemporary Iranian cinema (shades of Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” are not hard to find in “180 Degree Rule”). For her feature directorial debut, Samadi again takes on well-drawn characters trapped in horrifying circumstances, many of which spring from the fabric of Iranian life. Yet, stretched over the course of a feature — a very brisk 83 minutes — the filmmaker fails to connect her leading lady with a tragic, nearly repulsive drama that only seems to exist to provoke, never to serve the characters that populate it.
For all the care Samadi puts into building Sara and the explosive family drama, “180 Degree Rule” crumbles into outsized histrionics that diminish both its characters and the filmmaker who crafted them. What we know of Sara is soon tossed out, all the better to serve a demented plan that never matches up with her character, only spiraling outward into more untethered ugliness. Samadi has the ingredients for a great film — Sara is a rich character backed up by a strong performance by Dolatshahi, the predicament she finds herself in is compelling — but that doesn’t mean they belong together, especially not in a feature that seems to willfully ignore its own parameters to make something salacious and forgettable.
Despite her Type-A personality, Sara is at the mercy of Iranian societal expectations in that her husband is the final word on every decision. The film opens the day before a family wedding, which Sara is eager to attend; Hamed is less interested. He’s busy with work, and young Raha is feeling ill. All that aside, it doesn’t really matter: He doesn’t want to go, so they’re not going. When Hamed is called away for work and Raha suddenly feels better, Sara makes a choice that will change her entire life.
While Samadi layers on portents of what’s to come, what actually happens when Sara and Raha head north to celebrate the wedding — all without Hamed’s knowledge — is still shocking, and the ways in which it ripples outward only continue to surprise both the characters and the film’s audience. But, really, that’s all it does: shock. Despite meticulous early character-building, Samadi soon becomes compelled to contort all of her characters into secrets and lies that don’t suit anything we’ve previously learned. Sara, fearless and sensitive, becomes a silent vessel of deception that touches every member of her family, while Hamed, initially presented as a distant, traditional husband, is suddenly outed as an abuser.
The film ricochets through its paces. First it leans into hatching convoluted plans that are uprooted minutes later (with a quick foray into legal machinations that feel pulled from “A Separation” outtakes), and tossing in subplot about another ill-fated mother and child that only exists to draw limp comparisons. Even saddled with a series of baffling character decisions, Dolatshahi remains impressive to watch. Those implausible jumps that do land are a credit to her fine performance in a misshapen role.
While it’s never overtly stated, the title likely draws inspiration from the filmmaking guideline that has long shaped the way spatial relationships are shot. The 180-degree rule entails keeping the camera on one side of an imaginary axis, a side that only encompasses 180 degrees and thus creates an understandable orientation of characters and objects on the other side. “180 Degree Rule” doesn’t violate its eponymous inspiration in terms of cinematic language, but Samadi does seem oddly insistent on bucking other film rules, like basic character development. Some rules, it seems, are not made to be broken.
“180 Degree Rule” premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.