Dir: Vahid Jalilvand | Panorama | Contemporary World Cinema | Iran | 2017 | 104 mins
From A Separation to The Salesman, Iranian films have shown us how one incident can become a pivot for plots, characters and emotions to take shape and form through the length of the film. Vahid Jalilvand’s No Date, No Signature follows a similar storytelling convention and grips the audience in its whirlwind of emotions, compelling us to dissect Iran’s class struggle and find a shade of the character in ourselves.
Dr. Kaveh Nariman (Amir Agha’ee), a senior forensics doctor, accidentally knocks down a motorcycle with his car and the family aboard – a man named Musa (Navid Mohammadzadeh), his wife and two children – narrowly escape major harm. Dr. Nariman tends to the mild wounds of Musa’s eight-year-old son Amir Ali while the father struggles to get the motorcycles back on its wheels. The doctor inspects if the boy is suffering from a concussion, peppering questions about his age and school with inquiries to detect symptoms of any physical harm from the accident. There seem to be none, but the question of the accident’s physiological impact would come to haunt Dr. Nariman.
He hands over some money to Musa and insists that he takes the family to the nearest clinic for a check-up, but Musa speeds off. Their worlds collide again a few days later when Dr. Nariman finds that Amir Ali’s body has arrived in the same morgue where he is assigned duty.
Dr. Sayeh (Hediyeh Tehrani), a confidante of Dr. Nariman, but whose relationship with him is otherwise not defined, is unaware of the accident when she performs an autopsy. Results reveal that ‘botulism’ caused the boy’s death, putting the spotlight on Musa and his poor foresight that went on to prove fatal for the only son.
What transpires thereon is a strenuous relationship between Musa and his wife who blames him for their child’s death. In the meanwhile, Dr. Nariman – overcome by an inexplicable form of guilt that intensifies over time – relentlessly continues to investigate if the accident was the primary cause of Amir Ali’s death.
Musa, the distraught and broken father, gives No Date, No Signature its most powerful moments. The movie offers us an insight into male fragility and the cultural mores of being a father-figure, and this comes to the fore in Musa’s first-ever outburst. While chiding his wife’s protests and blames as a stoic man hardened by responsibilities and poverty, Musa chooses a secluded area to bleat and sob in loneliness. The movie’s best scene, however, comes much later when Musa visits a poultry vendor who he blames for his child’s death. A long, Shakespearean monologue portrays a defenseless man beaten down with the shame of losing his child to cheap chicken. The conventions of manly valour and authority completely unspool in this one scene and Musa becomes the man he never wishes to be – a guilty, son-less head of the family who is buried in the berating accusations of his wife.
After confronting the vendor with words, his tipping point edges him into physical tussle when the vendor slips into a pit and dies. The audience is left with shades of frustration and sympathy as he indulges in one nasty decision to the next. It reveals a man who has nothing to lose when he has lost dignity.
Dr. Nariman, switching between the film’s foreground and background, wrestles with an inexplicable guilt that the audience internalizes but can never rationalize. Whether it is the flashbacks of the brief meeting with the young Aamir Ali, his strict professional conduct or seeing a poor family in dire straits – the audience never knows, and his obsession with proving his wrongdoing over Musa’s compels conventional thought to take a backseat. While he pores over the autopsy reports and requests an exhumation for a more focused study of the boy’s corpse, it seems that Dr. Nariman is working to reach a predecided goal of proving his culpability. Dr. Nariman, by conflicting with Musa on claiming the cause of the boy’s death, in a way, blurs the line on class conflict that is so pronounced in Iran.
A subtle matter that audiences of foreign cultures may miss is ‘blood money’. It is likely that by proving the motor accident as the primary cause of Aamir Ali’s death, Dr. Nariman hopes to give the family access to much-needed money to rebuild their lives after a period of grief.
That said, No Date, No Signature is less about monetary transactions than emotional ones. It focuses on themes and topics that are difficult to grapple even with veteran actors performing to the scope of moving lens. How does a man cope with the guilt and shame of being culpable in his son’s death? How does a senior legal medicine practitioner cast aside his moral biases when examining a dead body that may have entered the morgue because of him?
No Date, No Signature puts the spotlight on two characters, Dr. Kaveh Nariman and Musa. But there is a third character that lurks in the depths of the story and stays with the audience when they leave the theatre – the guilty conscience.