Inspired by the lively call-and-response format of certain kinds of Persian poetry, Terrestrial Verses presents a series of vignettes between disenfranchised individuals in Tehran and unseen bureaucrats and other figures of authority using their status as given to them by corrupt systems of power to bully and take advantage of others, or simply get away with being lazy. Assuredly directed by Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatami, and shot over the course of a few days each in Iran and Canada, the film deftly portrays ongoing, everyday oppression in Iran that stems from a stringently religious authority.
The nearly one dozen stories in Terrestrial Verses are each intriguingly presented as long takes with the camera rooted in place while a subject is presented in frame. Off-camera, another figure interrogates, humiliates, diminishes, brushes off, or gaslights the protagonist, often from behind a desk, as the viewer watches a single actor at a time engage in fruitless debate while trying to hold on to their temper and humanity. It’s a setup that evokes the ending of A Separation by fellow Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, but without the same implications.
Mundane scenarios, such as getting a driver’s license, interviewing for a job, or filling out paperwork for a newborn, turn into deeply uncomfortable scenarios that become all too familiar to anyone who has lived under oppressive rule or faced a power imbalance. Some of the subjects are pushed to the verge of explosive emotion as they try to express or defend themselves, but are held back from full anger by virtue of their knowledge of the unfair structures that would surely cut them off from the very thing they need to accomplish. Thus, Kafkaesque situations are played out with most left trapped within nonsensical systems that are designed to suppress their individuality and freedom.
Interestingly, the only subject who escapes with dignity intact and is able to take back the power from authority is a young schoolgirl. Co-director Khatami explained during the post-screening Q&A at the Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival that she represents the hope he sees in the next generation who won’t put up with the broken system any longer. And for an Iran that saw massive protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, that is a powerful message.