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Cannes 2024: 'Universal Language' Is an Unorthodox Concoction of Canadian and Iranian Culture


People lining up against a wall in Matthew Rankin's Universal Language
Photo Courtesy of Best Friend Forever

There’s a certain fluidity to Matthew Rankin’s Universal Language, with the director describing it as a “cinematic Venn diagram between Winnipeg, Tehran and Montréal,” that creates a cinematic novelty. Its national and stylistic identity crafts a film that’s at once distinctly Canadian, distinctly Iranian, and a confluence of the two into a world that bears traces of our own — but it’s also something else altogether. What follows is quite the intriguing experience: an interzone of stories of an alternate universe Canada where Farsi is the dominant language of the country and where an ensemble of stories interweaves in enigmatic ways. 


In addition to directing, Rankin plays ‘himself’ in this alternate universe, a government bureaucrat based in Québec who undertakes a journey back home to Winnipeg. His story soon intersects with that of two kids, Negin (Rojina Esmaeili) and Nazgol (Saba Vaahedyousefi), who are hard at work trying to pry out a wad of money from the winter ice to pay for new glasses for one of their classmates, Omid; and that of Omid's dad, Massoud (Pirouz Nemati), who works as a tour guide for the historic sites of Winnipeg, taking them through monuments and historic sites. Along the way we meet many other quirky inhabitants of Winnipeg who come in and out of the narrative, as the film shifts between a relatively grounded realism and a strong streak of absurdist, surreal touches which emerge from their lives. 


There’s a lot to grasp tonally and thematically here which runs the risk of losing the viewer as it moves between subplots. Yet for as disorientating as it may be for some with the sheer breadth of what Rankin is attempting, the film makes up for it by the cumulative effect of all his multi-layered touches to these stories. 


The story of Negin and Nazgol, bearing strong resemblances to the long tradition of Iranian poetic realism around children’s narratives, has a naivety and charm to it that as the film proceeds, finds a strange harmony with the more cynical edges of the adults’ storylines. The way in which the more understated, deadpan humour of the film contrasts with some of the broader work of the ensemble ends up being rather hilarious, particularly in the opening sequence of a frustrated teacher letting off steam against a class of mischievous students (including one donning a Groucho Marx disguise, just one of many endearing non sequitur jokes in the film); and in a series of recurring turkey jokes involving a famous turkey expert — who pays tribute to a particular fowl whose ‘gobbling breathed life into my soul’ — and common folk indignant at having to accommodate these intrusive animals. 


That Rankin segues from all this enjoyable humour into something quite strangely moving as we delve further into his stories, is quite impressive. Universal Language offers audiences an odd concoction, and I must admit I lost focus on some of its deliberately obtuse aspects from time to time. Still, it’s impressive how much Rankin can get out of his rather unorthodox creation. 


To say more about the progression of the story would be to spoil much of its enjoyment, where it slips further and further into a dreamlike trance with the scenarios the characters find themselves in. What can be said, though, is that in its layered approach to Canadian and Iranian culture, offbeat humour, and blend of realism and meta touches deeply. Universal Language is a film confidently unlike any other, which contains much of its appeal.

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