M, 118 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

As a woman trying to escape an abusive marriage and start over in a new land, the actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi gives a delicate, transcendent performance. It is perhaps informed by her own experience of having to flee Iran in her twenties and build a new life in France. No wonder her performance as Shayda has a ring of truth about it.

Moreover, the filmmaker has also had to turn her back on the land of her birth. As a child, Shayda’s writer-director Noora Niasari experienced rupture and the sadness of having to leave Iran, friends, family and her grandmother’s saffron puddings behind, and build a new life abroad with her mother. Shayda has come about through some searing life experiences.

Shayda has come about through searing life experiences

Niasari came to Australia as a child with her parents but became the object of a custody dispute when they separated amid claims of domestic violence. Her film has been loosely based on this point in time, drawing on her own mother’s recollection of the details of their lives in 1990s Australia, when she was still quite young.

As the titular Shayda, Amir Ebrahimi is kept in frame much of the time, and she is quite wonderful. Not only must Shayda keep herself and her daughter safe, as she struggles to extricate herself from a violent marriage, but she has to re-establish herself and adapt to life in the Australian suburbs. Things need to continue to seem as normal, secure and loving as possible for her sweet 6-year-old daughter Mona (Selina Zahednia).

Nothing could have been stranger than starting a new life in a characterless corner of Australian suburbia. As Shayda and Mona join a household of women and children who are also taking refuge from abusive relationships, they become members of a strange family grouping with housemates originally from Vietnam and Britain.

The women’s refuge is run by Joyce (Leah Purcell) who gives the women practical assistance, like helping Shayda put together evidence for the upcoming custody hearing. Nothing is straightforward in this process either. As Shayda tries to separate from her husband, she needs to ignore the position taken by members of the Iranian community who don’t support her stand and continue to meet the needs of herself and her daughter. On phone calls home, her mother advises that ‘nobody’s life is perfect’, after all.

On phone calls home, her mother advises that ‘nobody’s life is perfect’, after all

For the time being, estranged husband Hossein is allowed access to his daughter, alone, on Saturday afternoons. He clearly loves his daughter, and they buy burgers and go to watch The Lion King, but when he realises that his estranged wife is beginning to show an interest in another man (Mojean Aria), he cannot master his emotions.

Shayda and Mona’s emotional tensions, their perpetual state of wariness, is reflected in a slightly unstable but not distracting, framing. It’s very subjective. This tension is only relaxed a few times. Namely at the disco that Shayda’s housemates persuade her to accompany them to, and at a Persian New Year party that seems very promising, with a great spread and the arrival of the attractive ‘cousin from Canada’, until Hossein (Osamah Sami) blunders in and everything is completely overturned.

It is a little unsettling to see the comic actor Osamah Sami as Hossein, after his very winning performance in Ali’s Wedding, a rom-com that he also wrote. He is equally persuasive here as a husband prone to violence. This transformation to a charming and conflicted, threatening character is an achievement for this versatile actor.

While this is an Iranian-Australian film, it shares some of the best traits of Iranian cinema, a cinema with extraordinarily powerful nuanced dramas, like A Separation and A Taste of Cherry, in which minimalist texts can result in better outcomes. Where less is more.

Zar Amir Ebrahimi may get more exposure to a wider audience from this Noora Niasari film than for her award-winning role as a journalist last year in the full-on thriller Holy Spider. For that role, she won best actress at Cannes.

Shayda, winner of a top audience award at Sundance, is a great showcase for Amir Ebrahimi. It is also a film with a backstory of the current political realities in a country where people are denied human rights and freedoms. It is dedicated to Niasari’s mother and the brave women of Iran.

First published in the Canberra Times on 7 October 2023. Jane’s reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes