The Seed of the Sacred Fig
Photograph: Cannes Film Festival
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The Seed of the Sacred Fig

5 out of 5 stars
Phil de Semlyen

Time Out says

Guerilla filmmaking comes with certain stereotypical connotations: small scale; shaky, handheld cameras; maybe murky lighting. None of those apply to Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof’s meaty and masterly family drama. Shot underground-style in Tehran in late 2023, a film decreed illegal by the country’s theocratic regime is as guerilla as they come – although from its scale, ambition and style you’d never guess it was made on the QT, in constant danger of being shut down and all concerned being chucked in jail. 

Rasoulof, who has now fled his homeland and gone into hiding, has delivered an urgent message from Iran’s frontlines that’s wrapped inside a slyly funny family drama and slowly infected with clammy paranoia. It clocks in at three hours but not a scene feels superfluous as its central quartet – dad, mum, two teenage daughters – squabble, fall out and finally implode in a subversive final act.

Dad is the portentously-named Iman (Missagh Zareh), an upstanding 20-year veteran of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Court who comes home one day with a new job – and a sidearm. He’s now in charge of investigating those charged with crimes against God. ‘God’, of course, really means a theocratic regime that just wants him to rubber-stamp a series of death sentences. 

The promotion means instant changes for his wife, Najmeh (Soheila Golestani) and daughters, outspoken Rezvan (Mahsa Rostami) and the younger Sana (Setareh Maleki). Their comfy middle-class life now requires safeguarding. No more social media posts; no revealing of their address. They’re an instant target for anti-regime activists. 

It clocks in at three hours but not a scene feels superfluous 

Of course, Rasoulof is borrowing from Chekhov’s playbook with that gun, and its mysterious disappearance – coinciding with the arrest of a student friend of Rezvan’s – knocks their family life clean off its axis. Faultlines crystallise: conservative dad is the regime’s enforcer; the modern-minded girls are eagerly following the swelling protests in Tehran; and Najmeh is caught in the middle, trying to figure out why what she hears on the TV news no longer tallies with her own lived experience. 

That pointed allegory for Iran as a whole never overwhelms the drama. Rasoulof keeps the family dynamics sleek and relatable, right up until they flee the city in a final act that takes a Haneke-like turn for the baroque. Andrew Bird’s elegant editing seamlessly flips us from one perspective to another, and cinematographer Pooyan Aghababaei’s sensitive lighting offers moments of tension-breaking sensuality. 

Rasoulof broadens the film’s sweep with real-life TikTok footage of vicious police brutality against protestors. Blood stains the pavement, hospitals fill with battered young people, many of them women rallying against the compulsory hijab. Rezvan and Sana use a VPN to keep plugged into the escalating freedom movement (infamously, Iran’s regime responded to the country’s 2019–2020 riots by imposing a week-long internet blackout).

As an opening title card explains, the sacred fig in question propagates its seeds into the branches of neighbouring trees, shooting branches to the ground and slowly choking the life out of its host – a metaphor for the state apparatus that doesn’t need any explanation. This thrilling, courageous movie takes a chainsaw to it.

The Seed of the Sacred Fig premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

Cast and crew

  • Director:Mohammad Rasoulof
  • Screenwriter:Mohammad Rasoulof
  • Cast:
    • Setareh Maleki
    • Soheila Golestani
    • Mahsa Rostami
    • Missagh Zareh
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