By Kara Abdolmaleki
Oct 8, 2013
Mr. Soleimani pairs his slippers with pedantic care. The stationery items on his desk are arranged with ardent adherence to the laws of geometry and his employees are efficiently worked to the last drop of energy. He is a meticulous perfectionist, a reception hall owner, a despot and a clinically morose individual. This is the story of Bist [Twenty] by Abdolreza Kahani. But behind this simple plot there is a shrewd and subtle allegory of the dynamic between Mr. Soleimani as a despotic owner of the reception hall and his employees.
The film sets off with Mr. Soleimani being admonished by his psychiatrist that, due to acute depression, he ought to gear his everyday activities towards a happier lifestyle or even sell the reception hall. The psychiatrist’s office is more of an interrogation room: We only hear the psychiatrist’s voice and watch Mr. Soleimani abjectly sitting on a chair in an empty white room while the camera is circling around him. It is obvious that the psychiatrist is, in fact, the filmmaker. He is simultaneously revealing Mr. Soleimani’s psyche and interrogating him for being the tyrant that he is. Soleimani is depicted as a total failure in personal life. He lives alone, has no friends or family, and the mutual disgust between him and his employees catches the eye.
His depression, according to the psychiatrist, is caused by the fact that his shabby reception hall is predominantly booked for funerals and rarely for weddings. This has significantly affected the dynamic among the characters. Early in the film, we are shown two snippets of a funeral and a wedding. Surprisingly, in both, the staff’s countenances are as grim and dejected. The acting, the languid rhythm and the noticeably melancholic music construct a gloomy setting in Bist.
With a combination of camera movement, script-writing, music and acting, Kahani shows us that in a lethargic milieu, efficiency would undoubtedly suffer a downturn. The employees, who at the same time fear and abhor Mr. Soleimani, try to make life as miserable as possible for him, in revenge of their low pay and the inhuman conditions he has imposed on them. But, ironically, their own lives are rendered miserable in the process. They never miss a chance to disturb the mathematical organization of his desktop, when they are cleaning it, or to use the company’s wrecked vanette truck for personal gains. Nevertheless, if their rage does not find an outlet, they take the oppression out on the women, Firouzeh and Fereshteh.
Customer service in Soleimani’s reception hall is a big joke: In one of the funeral scenes Bijan and Meisam knock a customer in the head with a box of drinks, while moving it over the dinner table. Later Bijan refuses to provide another Canada Dry for a costumer, indicating that he has not finished his first yet. Upon the costumer’s objection, he empties the bottle on the floor and tells him, “Now you need a second bottle”. The reception hall is a social system whose survival is hung from the thinnest hair of Machiavellian oppression.
The extremely drab and melancholy music, accomplished by impeccably-timed strikes on the Tar, along with the eulogies from the funerals is countered by the very happy ringtone on Bijan’s cell phones. Cell phones are very individualistic devices; hence, the rhythmic and gay ringtone can represent the unbridgeable schism between a citizen’s lifestyle and the rigid norms the state dictates. We also see how music helps Kahani represent Mr. Soleimani’s estranged son, an accordion player, who struggles to introduce himself to his father but never finds a chance. The accordion hanging from the son’s neck is a symbol of social change. Change is possible through art, through cultural development; nevertheless, Mr. Soleimani refuses to accommodate him in the reception hall. When he finally consents, it is already too late.
The traditional outlook towards management and incredulity for modernization drives Mr. Soleimani to squander several minutes manually counting his stack of 20000 Rls bills immediately after a perfectly fine counting machine has accomplished the task. He always deals with cash and meticulously stores the stacks in a safe, where they would sit and gather dust. He keeps the safe by his comfy king-sized bed. We see him slowly stretching his legs there while Meisam has to sleep in the back of a bus and Bijan spends the night dosing off behind the wheel of the parked vanette. Later, from his conversation with his mother, we find out that Bijan is an innocent lad from a small town who has moved to Tehran chasing the dream of becoming a famous actor. He is the symbol of the suffering of the artist in a backwarded society. He tries very hard to find a window of opportunity through the humdrum cycle of life but his lack of expertise and the heavy burden of life send all his efforts down the drains.
As the manager, Mr. Soleimani’s repugnance for positive change is beautifully portrayed in the ugliness of the dilapidated reception hall, the rusty kitchen and the wrecked vanette truck. His reception hall is a microcosm for a society under rigid despotism. He watches his subjects with unforgiving scrutiny, keeps record of every single mistake in a notebook and abuses them financially, verbally and even physically. Despite all this, his employees are very upset when they find out that he is going to sell the reception hall. They do their utmost to prevent this from happening.
Through their efforts, something inexplicable occurs. Soleimani’s starts to reveal a softer side: He allows his estranged son to play at the reception hall, invites Meisam and Bijan to sleep in his apartment, lets Firouzeh bring her child to work, and even refuses to sell the reception hall. But, alas, all these so-called reforms take place when his time is already up. At Meisam and Firouzeh’s wedding, Babak finally finds the guts to tell Mr. Soleimani’s about being his son. He enters the room to find Mr. Soleimani lying lifeless in his bed. The film ends with the chef, singing a hopeful song about “the sound of music coming from beyond the hills”. Mr. Soleimani’s death is met with joy. His is replaced by his son, a more sympathetic, liberal and caring manager. What remains is a portrait of Soleimani, an image for the history books, a visage of a modern day Ozymandias. His slippers are now carelessly cast on the carpet. No one cares about them paired anymore. Ozymandias’s reign of terror and mathematical perfection is over.