When Iranian director Asghar Farhadi won the 2012 best foreign language Oscar for his exceptional "A Separation," the film seemed to come out of nowhere: a throwback to the intense character- and narrative-driven films of Hollywood's golden age with the added twist of coming from a society we knew very little about and have been encouraged to regard as alien.
In the years since, however, as Farhadi's earlier works have received American distribution, we've been able to see where he came from, to in effect chart his progress by going backward in time.
"About Elly," his last film before "A Separation," finally arrived here last year, and now we have the film before that, 2006's "Fireworks Wednesday," showing in Los Angeles just after the Persian New Year's celebration that figures prominently in its plot.
Like both "A Separation" and "About Elly," "Fireworks Wednesday" focuses on the complexities of male-female relationships, on human complications that result in scenes so unnerving they feel at times almost too intense to watch. Plus, the use of accomplished actors who are unfamiliar to Western audiences helps make these stories even more involving than they already are.
But, as with his previous films, Farhadi's work gains in interest because it's set not in a familiar Western country but in Iran, a place where the religious nature of the leadership means women need to worry if their chadors are misplaced and schoolkids can be lectured for an hour a day on the nature of hell.
As written by Farhadi and Mani Haghighi, the focus of "Fireworks" is initially on a young woman living in Tehran named Rouhi (Taraneh Alidousti). Cheerful, well meaning but not especially sophisticated, Rouhi is about to be married and, needing some extra money, takes a domestic-for-a-day apartment cleaning job from a temp agency for the day leading up to New Year's Eve.
Her employers turn out to be a prosperous, worldly couple with a young son, a family well-off enough to be preparing for a New Year's vacation in Dubai.
Their apartment, however, is inexplicably a complete mess, husband Morteza (Hamid Farokh-Nejad) is in a terrible mood with a large bandage wrapped around one hand, and when wife Mojdeh (Hedieh Tehrani) comes home she proves to be a high-strung, even neurotic, woman who immediately gets into a battle with her husband.
As it turns out, Rouhi has all unknowingly been thrust into a domestic maelstrom. Mojdeh suspects that her husband has been having an affair with Mrs. Simin (Pantea Bahram), a divorced woman who lives next door and runs a clandestine beauty salon out of her apartment. Morteza passionately denies the accusation, but Mojdeh is not completely convinced.
Having muddled into a situation she doesn't completely understand, Rouhi gets increasingly in over her head. She's recruited by Mojdeh to spy on Mrs. Simin, to use her status as a bride-to-be to get her eyes done for the upcoming wedding. Getting her eyes opened about the nature of marital relationships turns out to be an unintended consequence.
As noted, having this story told in Iran affords us an opportunity to see how living under a theocracy plays out in everyday life. Mrs. Simin complains, for instance, that "slanderous things are said when a woman lives alone," Morteza has to deal with a work crisis involving a photograph of a woman whose hair is not completely covered, and all of Tehran gets caught up in fireworks-heavy New Year's Eve celebrations.
Yet for all the surface differences, what pulls us into "Fireworks Wednesday" is the universality of the emotions its characters display and the familiarity of the situations they find themselves in. Farhadi is a master navigator of these waters, and even his earlier films reward our close attention.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes