Cannes 2024 review: The Seed of the Sacred Fig (Mohammad Rasoulof)

“It is unfortunate that this strength is not sustained until the end, although The Seed of the Sacred Fig remains a powerful work by a director with a fighting spirit who has lived his work.”

No review of Mohammad Rasoulof’s The Seed of the Sacred Fig can bypass the personal trauma that the Iranian director, so often openly critical of Tehran’s theocratic regime, had to endure over the past decade and a half. After earlier arrests, filmmaking bans, and a short stint in prison, just weeks ago Rasoulof received another eight-year prison sentence, supplemented by a series of lashings. This was the final straw for the director, and he fled the country on foot, ending up in an undisclosed location in Europe. Wherever that location is, it allowed him to attend the premiere of his latest, most furiously political film. The Seed of the Sacred Fig starts out as a political drama in the aftermath of the Mahsa Amini murder at the hands of state police, but after several genre changes ends up with the complete disintegration of a family of four. Clocking in at nearly three hours, the film never overstays its welcome, but it does lose its urgency in the final act, in which it turns the Iranian desert into the stage of a Western. Hotly tipped to win the Palme d’Or, the film’s biggest triumph is that it even exists, and that Rasoulof can present it in freedom, even if in exile.

Iman (Misagh Zare) is the patriarch of a family of four, a family that will be moving up in the world now that he has been promoted to investigative judge. His wife Najmeh (Soheila Golestani) and two daughters Rezvan (Mahsa Rostami) and Sana (Setareh Maleki) look forward to the prospect of a bigger apartment. But just as Iman starts his new job, riots break out over the Iranian regime’s oppression of women, and in particular the murder of Mahsa Amini. Rezvan and Sana are of a younger, more progressive generation, and as such follow these riots via social media, watching harrowing video after harrowing video of people being beaten or shot at. When this happens to a classmate of Rezvan, the girl shows up with a bloodied face full of buckshot pellets on Najmeh’s doorstep. Najmeh agrees to take care of the wounds, but after that sends the girl home, leading to a prompt arrest.

In the meantime, the riots mean that Iman is swamped in work and rarely shows up for family dinners anymore. He and Najmeh are of an older generation with decidedly more conservative ideas about the protesters in the streets. Najmeh tries to keep the peace at home, balancing between helping her girls with activities she doesn’t approve of (like aiding the aforementioned classmate), while keeping all of this away from her husband. When one night Iman’s service gun disappears, something that may cost him his job and land him in prison, the question of who took the gun threatens to tear the family apart. When he’s then doxxed by online protesters, the family need to escape to the countryside in hopes of staying away from trouble. But they bring trouble with them, as Iman is determined to turn every stone to figure out who in his family lied to him.

The sacred fig, as some opening title cards explain, is an invasive parasite that strangles its host until only the fig is left. It is a nice metaphor for the stranglehold the Iranian government has on its people, and Iman is a part of that system. Although initially presented as just another cog in the large wheel of oppression, it becomes increasingly clear that his role is bigger and more sinister than we thought. “You don’t see it, because you’re part of it,” Rezvan throws at his feet in a heated exchange at the first dinner the four have had in weeks. While not actively involved in the protests, the girls make it perfectly clear what side they are on, which pits them against their patriarch, who starts tightening the screws without remorse the longer the mystery of the lost gun lingers. Najmeh’s role in all of this is the most interesting, as she navigates a minefield to keep her family together. This is beautifully shown in the juxtaposition of two similar scenes; in one, she carefully removes the buckshot pellets from the swollen face of Sadaf, Rezvan’s friend. In another, she lovingly washes Iman and cuts his hair. Najmeh cannot prevent though that eventually Iman will also turn against her in his ruthless attempt to save his hide from the wrath of his superiors. He has to choose between the family and the state, and he makes a dramatic choice.

The film opens as a political drama, with Rasoulof generously incorporating real social media videos of the atrocities committed by both state and plainclothes police. He then turns it into somewhat of a whodunit once the gun disappears. Before that, he has taken good care to show the gun every time Iman returns home late from work and places the gun in a bedside drawer. The film takes on thriller elements, in particular when Iman enlists the help of a fellow investigator, and friend of the family, to interrogate the women individually, blindfolded to instill fear in them. There is a moment of recognition in Sana though that the man putting them under pressure may not be this Alireza, but her own father.

The film then changes genre again as the family goes on the run and are spied upon by a couple who reveal Iman’s larger-than-believed role in Iran’s repression policies. The Seed of the Sacred Fig ends as a Western, complete with a chase through the alleys and houses of an abandoned village drawn up from mud. It is here that the story loses itself, because while this sequence is entertaining in its own right, and very skillfully directed, the film abandons its broader, more urgent message and becomes the falling apart of a family at the hands of a maniacal patriarch. The film loses the power that it had during its first two acts, where the unseen hand of the Iranian authorities still loomed large over this family’s small apartment.

This makes the film fizzle out in clichés, where up until then its direction was in Rasoulof’s tight grip. In particular the sense of paranoia and not being able to trust anyone of the middle part seems to be a reflection of Rasoulof’s own situation while still in Iran, even if the culprit who stole the gun is somewhat obvious. The acting is strong across the board, with Golestani in particular devastating in her highwire act to keep it all together (sadly, neither Golestani nor Zare could attend the premiere, being stuck in Iran; the two younger actresses were present though). It is unfortunate that this strength is not sustained until the end, although The Seed of the Sacred Fig remains a powerful work by a director with a fighting spirit who has lived his work. The film isn’t exactly subtle, and Rasoulof lacks the poetry of a Panahi or Kiarostami, but the fire in his belly is far from out, and with a newfound home and more freedom he can continue to attack the oppressive regime in his native country.