Berlinale 2022 review: Until Tomorrow (Ali Asgari)

Until Tomorrow incriminates the status quo for women’s rights in Iran forcefully, merging convention with distinct perspective, and extending the conversation with focused condemnation.”

A woman’s rights over her own body are frequently explored through a horrific travelogue where the itinerary is defined by the absence of legal access to abortion at worst or the controlled limitation to it at best. From Cristian Mungiu’s damning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days in 2007 to Audrey Diwan’s striking Happening last year, unwanted pregnancies spur unwelcomed discoveries, not just on abortion, but around feminism, ownership and empowerment. Access and the right to choose, legally and safely, are central to these and other films, but at their most exceptional, they extend beyond a single act to reproach power structures, too. Ali Asgari’s impressive Until Tomorrow is shaped by this cinematic tradition. Though the search here isn’t about choice in the context of abortion, the work draws upon the familiarity of those journeys to rework them into a complementary survey of women’s rights in contemporary Iran.

A surprising call from her parents triggers an hours-long, cross city odyssey for Fereshteh (Sadaf Asgari). She’s a young, single mother in Tehran, juggling a two-month-old infant and apprenticeship studies for a print house. Fereshteh is immediately presented as resourceful and driven, but also isolated and introverted. And who wouldn’t be? She has a secret: her parents do not know about their grandchild. When they announce their last-minute arrival from her home village, Fereshteh’s carefully managed life reckons circumstance against truth. How will she briefly free herself from all signs of motherhood, if only for several hours, into the next day? With her best friend Atefeh (Ghazal Shojaei) at her side, and often leading the way, Fereshteh scours her few options in Tehran for fleeting resolution.

Until Tomorrow is not a Safdie Brothers-style kinetic whirlwind kicked off by personal crisis, but director Asgari allows the weight of the unseen clock to amplify each move the young women attempt. The burden of time ticks into frame most exceptionally in transport, when deliberation gives way to mindful consideration. From bus to motorcycle to taxi, intra-urban travel is fuel for decision-making. Where it’s tempting to assume these sequences will drive intensity with literal motion, instead the filmmaker presents the monotony of the journey, even under crucial circumstances, as quiet or simple reprieves for deliberation. The energy of the hunt for a kind person to store her daughter’s clothes and food, and, ultimately, for anyone to care for the child herself, heightens with each fretful ride. The hushed moments, visually trapped in the confines of transit, are when the stressful, mounting realities of Until Tomorrow release. This is where the social immobility of Fereshteh’s life as an unwed mother is softly pressed into the forefront.

Sadaf Asgari is compelling in the lead performance, especially in silent reaction, and there is a particular one in a taxi that is tender in execution. The scene is held in muted beats, the whir of the night city passing outside, muffled and distant beyond the rear windows, when a discovery in her bag forces Fereshteh to confront the limitations shaping her world. Director Asgari (who happens to be the actress’ uncle) crafts the moment to perfection, as he does with the bond between Fereshteh and her confidant Atefeh (an absorbing Shojaei in support). His nuanced hand in expanding his short film The Baby into this feature is consistent, seldom rushed, never truncated. Tension builds, start to finish, but never feels needlessly intensified. When a male authority figure threatens Fereshteh both legally and sexually, for example, the scene reads with terror in its ordinariness. The pointedness from a young filmmaker like Asgari, both universal and specific, is gripping on screen. Until Tomorrow incriminates the status quo for women’s rights in Iran forcefully, merging convention with distinct perspective, and extending the conversation with focused condemnation.