Iran was at a pivotal crossroads in 1977, as mounting allegations of corruption and impropriety against the Shah, and by extension the Western-aligned government he represented, began to ignite the first embers of revolution. Unrest was further fueled by a long period of unchecked inflation, a side effect of the decade’s Middle Eastern oil boom, which expanded the state economy in jagged, decidedly inequitable fashion. Such social factors helped lay the groundwork for Abbas Kiarostami’s The Report, a major early achievement for the director, who sharpened his first professionally produced feature into a piercing referendum on the times, one that stands less as an overt critique of bourgeoisie excess than an empathetic diagnosis of its general causes. It’s also his first film to deliver an incisive analysis of the national mindset with a pointedly punning title, in this case referring both to a specific report handled by its tax investigator protagonist and the movie’s status as a prospectus on the country’s contemporary malaise.
In the post-Revolutionary era, which would officially begin less than two years after this was released, Iranian films have generally been forced to avoid pointing out the harsh realities of city life, instead offering roundabout parables which utilize children or remote rural locales, all to distance filmmakers from being perceived as making incendiary political commentary. This makes the unveiled criticisms presented here feel all the more cutting, a quality further amplified by Kiarostami’s unerring eye for compositions which maximize such acerbic effect. Broadcasting from within the dead center of urban bureaucracy, The Report focuses less on communicating claustrophobia or hollowness than a deeper spiritual angst, its largely indoor settings cluttered and lively but always marked by a definite air of desperation. Everyone is engaged in, but less than satisfied by, their assigned social roles, leading to frequent arguments about decorum and hints of deeper dysfunction beneath this veneer of irritability.
Set primarily in a boundary zone where domestic and professional spheres overlap, The Report concerns a swelling series of crises in the life of Mahmad Firuzkui (Kurosh Afsharpanah), a young family man whose seemingly perfect household is actually on the brink of collapse. The first signs of fissure occur at Mahmad’s workplace, a cramped government office he shares with two fellow civil servants, their conversations melding into a cacophony of strident cross-talk. The chaos here leads into more at home, as Mahmad explains to his wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo) that he’ll be skipping dinner the following night to drink with his office mates. As she gripes about his insufficient engagement with family life – holding the baby while he saws away at the kotlet she’s prepared for him – he counters that off-the-clock cocktails are a job requirement, not a recreational activity.
This tension between work and home, in which the unchecked expansion of the former grows to encompass the latter, is a significant theme. Equally noteworthy is a brief argument Mahmad has in the opening scene, after he accidentally breaks a tea glass. The vendor demands four tomans to replace it. Mahmad asserts that such a measly object should cost no more than two tomans, a charge the tea seller refutes by the explaining the glass is more expensive because it was unbreakable. The fact that the glass has already broken is then twisted back to further explain Mahmad’s guilt. Here an essential absurdity is highlighted, with the film’s monetary focus centered on a society structured around monetary values that have no relationship to the actual worth of the objects assigned to them.
Money ends up becoming the most prominent conversational topic in The Report, cropping up in every subsequent scene, from the shadow-wreathed after-hours casino the co-workers manage together, to troubles with rent and battles over the cost of household purchases. This all filtered through a central conflict involving a supposed bribe, which an incensed petitioner accuses Mahmad of having tried to solicit. He denies the charge but finds himself being elbowed out of his position nonetheless, as his problems at home also tilt over into catastrophe. His attempts to fix both demonstrate the plight of the modern middle-class Tehrani, with a showroom-ready apartment and apparently ideal life, scrambling to secure an arrangement that is itself a joyless chore to maintain.
Ramping up this scenario, Kiarostami’s film momentum while establishing Mahmad as increasingly detached from his circumstances, pushed to the margins of each shot as the discussion of money gets louder and louder. This increase in volume is accentuated by an absence of background music and some particularly aggressive sound mixing, with peripheral sounds competing with actual conversation, placing further emphasis on the stress applied by external forces. All of this culminates in a seemingly minor scene late in the story, in which Mahmad eats a sandwich in a snack shop while his young child, who he’s too proud to be seen taking care of on his own, waits in the car. Standing by the window, he sneaks comforting waves to her through the frosted glass, while inside a man prattles on about a scheme to get his hands on an expensive Fiat model similar to Mahmad’s own, skirting import taxes by buying direct from Germany. Mahmad denies ownership of the car, then says nothing more, a nowhere man stuck in a limbo entirely of his own making, surrounded by countrymen searching for the next hopeless thrill.