Venice 2020 review: The Wasteland (Ahmad Bahrami)

The wind sweeps across the dusty Iranian desert, where workers toil in the heat in one of the area’s last traditional mudbrick factories. Their lives are intertwined but also separated, as they all have their specific individual problems and their different backgrounds to deal with. They see their boss as the key to solving these problems. There is Ebrahim, an Azeri, who wants to marry Gohar, an Iranian, in spite of her father Mashebad’s plans for her. Mashebad wants to take his family back to their hometown and marry Gohar off to an Iranian. There is Shahu, a Kurd, who draws the ire of Ebrahim by working around the factory’s women with just his tank top on. Shahu’s dad is on death row, and his family needs money to pay off the accusers. There is Sarvar, a single mother who carries a secret. And then there is Lotfollah, the supervisor, a man who was born at the factory and never left. He is in love with Sarvar, and when the workers are told that the factory is being shut down Lotfollah will try everything to keep Sarvar out of harm’s way.

The Wasteland, Ahmad Bahrami’s second film, is an incisive look at life on the outskirts of Iranian society hidden in a nifty piece of clockwork storytelling. The film is essentially split up in two parts, its turning point the speech by the factory’s owner to his workers about closing the factory. We see this speech five times throughout the first half of the film, a small part added with every iteration, until we get to the full version roughly around the midway point. While he speaks the camera glides over the faces of the workers to find focus on a different one of them each time, segueing into their separate stories.

Their stories, from Mashebad to Ebrahim, from Shahu to Sarvar, follow a similar yet ever shorter pattern: Lotfollah tells them the boss wants to talk to them, there is a conversation in the boss’s office, and afterwards the focal character has lunch with his or her family and then takes a nap. During the conversation they explain their problem to the boss and he promises to take care of them. They all warn him about Lotfollah and how he favors Sarvar, taking her to the road to town on Thursdays while the boss is away. After they leave the camera pans to the window and frames Sarvar at work, the boss staring at her.

The second half of the film deals with the aftermath of the speech and focuses heavily on Lotfollah. As his co-workers scatter to the wind he takes care of collecting final timesheets and finishing the last batches of bricks. Only Sarvar lingers, but even she eventually leaves with the boss, and Lotfollah is alone in the only world he has ever known. He doesn’t know anything other than making bricks, so what will he do with his life now?

The midway tonal shift completely changes The Wasteland‘s rhythm, the speech being positioned as the moment of explosion of a ticking timebomb. With each shortened segment the film picks up pace, like the shortening breath of someone running away from the inevitable. When the inevitable does happen it shatters the wall of bricks that is this group of workers, who stand as a metaphor for Iran and its different ethnicities. Each has their own cultural background and traditions, yet their stories focus more on their similarities. The clearest symbol for this is the ubiquitous tea and the way they all drink it. Lotfollah is the cement that holds these bricks together, settling their differences and acting as a go-between for them and the boss. But what good is cement if there are no more bricks? As The Wasteland heads into its final stretch the film slows down its tempo and feels deflated compared to the pulsating rhythm from earlier, a conscious choice by Bahrami to prepare us for a bleak ending.

Shot in black and white and in Academy ratio, The Wasteland has the look and feel of a classic from over half a century ago. The high contrast catches every speck of dust, creating an environment so parched it makes you reach for a water bottle (or that ubiquitous tea). The harshness of the environment emanates from the imagery and sound design. Thematically though this is a film very rich in flavours, touching upon topics such as alcohol abuse (taboo for Muslims) and extra-marital affairs, and highlighting the multi-ethnicity of the country and the hardships that these ethnicities face. And The Wasteland does all this in a tightly constructed narrative laid out by Bahrami’s masterful hand, resulting in a film that can only be labeled a masterpiece.