On the first day of her new job as a cleaning lady, Rouhi, a young woman about to be married, finds herself in the midst of a crisis in the home where she is to work. The woman of the house, Mojdeh, has accused her husband Morteza of infidelity with a neighbour, something he vehemently denies but which the perceived knowledge she has gleaned from spying leads her to fervently believe. Whether true or false, the accusations and suspicions cause an increasingly marked rift in their marriage, and Rouhi is drawn further and further into their turmoil and recriminations, as she is torn between husband, wife, and their young son.
Fireworks Wednesday is the third feature by Asghar Farhadi, and marks a dramatic change from his earlier films Raghs dar ghobar/Dancing in the Dust (2003) and Shah-re ziba/The Beautiful City (2004). Where these films were variously built around isolated, alienated and oppressed men, Fireworks Wednesday (co-scripted by the director Mani Haghighi) features a naive, unassuming, happy-go-lucky female protagonist, Rouhi, who must navigate the maelstrom of a middle-class home and the disintegration of a marriage and a family. What unites Farhadi’s burgeoning oeuvre, linking this film with his earlier features (and shorts), is its use of a single protagonist who anchors the narrative and acts as a door into and a mirror on an increasingly complex and fragmented world. Like Dostoevsky’s titular idiot, he depicts insular, microcosmic worlds that come into focus through the contrastive consciousness of a character who remains an outsider looking in.
This fracture in action and focalizing perspective in Fireworks Wednesday is but one of a series of parallels and mirror images that structure and animate its narrative. Chief in this regard is the 20 March timeline of the film’s action. Like Jafar Panahi’s debut Badkonake sefid/The White Balloon (1995), Fireworks Wednesday is set on the cusp of Iran’s New Year holiday festivities on 21 March, and similarly uses the backdrop of this impending celebration to throw the central drama into sharp relief. It is a national rebirth and new beginning, but also a personal one for the young protagonist Rouhi, who is about to embark on marriage and a significant new chapter in her life. But the world she stumbles into revolves only around endings, around finality and closure. The lives of the couple that she comes to clean for are as broken and disordered as their flat, something that is ultimately further offset by the proliferation of celebrations in the city outside, a literal explosion of fire and fireworks to match the figurative pyrotechnics taking place behind not so-closed doors.
In the annals of Iranian cinema, certainly its prestigious art cinema, films about couples and marriage have been relatively rare, with either men or, much more common, women occupying a narrative and thematic centre. Slightly but perceptibly, this has begun to change in recent years, with films like Gagooman/The Twilight (Mohammad Rasoulof, 2002), 20 Angosht/20 fingers (Mania Akbari, 2004) and Party (Saman Maghadam, 2000) focusing on the complexities of relationships in modern Iran. Generally the line of inquiry and locus of drama and conflict in these works involves tradition and the complex gender politics of Iranian social specificity. Fireworks Wednesday, by way of contrast, largely forgoes such an examination; instead stressing the universality of the desperate situation that is depicted, wherein the personal feelings and emotions of the couple Mojdeh and Morteza revolve almost entirely around those that are fundamentally human: anger, betrayal, shame and personal humiliation. Indeed, as if to underline the challenge inherent in this film to Iranian social customs, Farhadi and Haghighi include a running motif centred on Rouhi’s chador. The narrative begins with a lightly comic scene featuring the protagonist and her fiancé on a motorbike, during which said headscarf becomes trapped in the wheels and almost causes an accident whilst they are driving. Subsequently, Mojdeh borrows the same chador when she follows Morteza to work and confronts him in the street; and it is this particular detail that most angers her husband, to the extent that he behaves unlike himself and openly beats and shames her in public.
Here, then, is another prominent mirror image at the heart of the film: that of comedy and tragedy connected by the item of traditional headwear. The notion of the oppressiveness of Islamic tradition is thus raised only to be questioned and problematized, as a significant contributory factor in marital discord. This it does by way of, respectively, the comedy of the former scene and the uncharacteristically violent outburst in the latter, the fact that Morteza’s public display contrasts with his private self.
Ultimately, as the motif of spying early in the film indicates, Fireworks Wednesday is about knowledge – of oneself, of others, and of the symbiosis between the two: how one’s social, inter-personal interactions and relationships colour personal feelings and identity. From this point of view, the film’s pensive, ruminative final moments are especially apposite. They posit two distinct post-scripts, two variant visions in which the respective futures of the different characters are tentatively poised, balanced as they are on what each person believes about, and has emotionally invested in, their partners. It is a fitting denouement for a film that subtly challenges preconceptions, perceived knowledge, of modern Iranian cinema and indeed modern Iran, its traditions, society and customs.