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Source: NY Times

Oct 19, 2023

An Iranian American woman navigates her family life and her personal life in this semi-autobiographical feature from Maryam Keshavarz.

By Amy Nicholson

“I dreamed of being the Iranian Martin Scorsese,” confesses Leila (Layla Mohammadi), the lead character in “The Persian Version,” Maryam Keshavarz’s semi-autobiographical reverie about a rising Iranian American director and her tumultuous family life.

The film won the audience award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the second of Keshavarz’s movies to take that prize. (Her first, the 2011 queer romance “Circumstance,” launched her career — and got her banned from Iran.)

The movie opens at a costume party where Leila sports a niqab over a pink bikini, her cultural contradictions on brazen display. Leila, reeling from a split with her wife, Elena (Mia Foo), has a one-night stand with Maximillian (Tom Byrne) and becomes pregnant.

To her conservative parents and eight brothers, Leila’s impending motherhood is yet another of her outrageous scandals.

Throughout, Keshavarz wields her Scorsese influences. There are disorienting time-jumps, abrupt edits and heavy narration paired with shots of Leila strutting through New York City.

But Keshavarz samples other genres, too, from westerns and twee indies to go-for-broke slapstick. Maximillian, the would-be boyfriend, stammers adorably like he’s in a Hugh Grant rom-com and spends most of the film in drag. (He’s playing the lead in a production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at the time.)

The result is a personal film that feels oddly impersonal. The tonal clutter overwhelms Keshavarz’s genuinely interesting story.

On the page, it might have sounded clever to have Leila hide under a gorilla mask when she bumps into her ex-wife at the grocery store. Onscreen, however, the gag feels contrived and distracting.

The script most resembles a herky-jerky one-woman show, a string of memories and cheeky, self-conscious declarations. Keshavarz has propped up her story line with refrains that don’t quite coalesce.

Her breakup with Elena is echoed by her description of the acrimony between Iran and America: “Like any great romance, it ended in a bitter divorce,” she says, an analogy she uses twice.

Her father, Ali (Bijan Daneshmand), spends the movie in a hospital awaiting a heart transplant; her mother, Shireen (Niousha Noor), is deemed “heartless.”Gradually, Keshavarz shifts her focus from Leila, essentially her fictional self, to Shireen as a way to re-examine her own mother, Azar Keshavarz, through adult eyes.

The sequences that star Shireen are fantastic. The first segment, set in the early 1990s, charts her climb from uneducated immigrant housewife to real estate dynamo.

The film also goes back to the late ’60s when Shireen was a rural child bride. We’re staggered by her journey to empowerment, a grueling stretch of which shows her desperate, alone and pregnant, riding a donkey.

Kamand Shafieisabet, the phenomenal teenage actor who portrays young Shireen, continues to live in Iran.

She deserves a global spotlight.Keshavarz seems so awed by her mother’s resilience that she only hesitantly sketches a through-line from that tale to her own.

Instead, having shuffled through scores of ideas, Keshavarz ends the film saluting all women fighting to live on their own terms — a struggle raging in Iran and beyond.

The Persian VersionRated R for language and sexual references. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes. In theaters.

The Persian VersionFind TicketsWhen you purchase a ticket for an independently reviewed film through our site, we earn an affiliate commission.


Maryam Keshavarz


Maryam Keshavarz


Layla Mohammadi, Niousha Noor, Kamand Shafieisabet, Bijan Daneshmand, Bella Warda



Running Time

1h 47m


Comedy, Drama, Romance

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