Downbeat yet compelling Iranian drama lent vitality by its star Sahar Dolatshahi
An irrepressibly charismatic lead performance lends vitality to Behnam Behzadi's otherwise staunchly downbeat story of familial duty and the limits it places on female autonomy. Niloofar (Sahar Dolatshahi) is an independent, self-confident businesswoman who's contemplating an end to her single life when fate and her family make it clear they have other plans for her.
Niloofar's mother is in ill health, which is exacerbated by the chronic air pollution in their home city of Tehran. Though Niloofar's life and livelihood are firmly located in the city, her wider family unites in pushing her towards a move to the countryside with her mother. Just as the city she loves is choked with smog, which becomes deadly due to the 'thermal inversion' of the title, so Niloofar's nearest and dearest close in on her, and dependency turns toxic. Niloofar might have everything going for her in terms of being a successful modern woman, but her freedoms are, if not illusory, then at least subject to strict conditions.
The endless demands Niloofar is subjected to are emphasised by the relentless sound of cellphones, whose ringtones form insistent mood music. The film shares with the current darling of Iranian cinema Asghar Farhadi a close-up focus upon family politics as a microcosm of wider social mores, and a mood of claustrophobic gloom that allows little breathing space for levity.
Though the running time is snappy, the tone can feel like heavy weather. Still, the story possesses tension and momentum, in no small part because the sheer vibrant intensity of Dolatshahi's presence makes it impossible not to care what happens to Niloofar. And if its literal context is specific to Iran, the film also speaks to all of us about what happens when what we want clashes with what is expected of us.
Limited release from Fri 19 May.