Asghar Farhadi’s Fireworks Wednesday presents a familiar problem for anyone who decides to bone up on a director’s complete filmography. The earlier stuff is more of a mixed bag: the filmmaker is not yet at the height of his or her powers, and yet there are glimmers of the amazing stuff that’s yet to come (a good analogy would be if you decided to watch Woody Allen films before Annie Hall). In the past few years, Farhadi established himself as one the world’s best dramatists; while his films are usually about relationships, they have such precise plotting that they unfold like thrillers. Released five years before Farhadi captured the world’s attention, this is a film made by someone who does not yet trust his strengths.
The best part about Farhadi’s films is how he conceals secrets. In the aforementioned A Separation and The Past, we think we understand the relationships quickly, only to discover a detail that forces us to reconsider all that preceded it. There are similar reveals here, except they come from an outsider’s point of view: Roohi (Taraneh Alidoosti) is out entry point, a bright-faced housecleaner who arrives at a middle class apartment.
The place is in total disarray. The husband Morteza (Hamid Farokhnezhad) gives stern instructions, while his wife Mozhde (Hediyeh Tehrani) is almost absent-minded. Roohi finds herself in the middle of a long quarrel between the two: Mozhde suspects Morteza is cheating on her with their neighbor Simin (Pantea Bahram), and sends Roohi to spy. Roohi does not realize she’s spying, exactly, so her little white lies to everyone involved take on a more complicated dimension as the day continues.
Once again, one of Farhadi’s goals is to show Western audiences how Iranians live. Aside from superficial differences, the characters in Fireworks Wednesday are instantly relatable. They’re impatient, nervous, and more skeptical of decency than they should be. The characters may be religious, but they’re more concerned with home repairs, vacations, and the ability to earn a living. The rapid-fire dialogue also reflects this realism: no one behaves like they’re in a movie. Farhadi’s masterstroke is to embed secrets within this banal-sounding dialogue so we do not realize details are important until long after we hear them. This creates a unique kind of suspense, and forces us to listen harder than we normally would.
The main issue, and what ultimately undermines the film, is Roohi’s distance from the conflict. She’s a wide-eyed innocent, which means that the most important character also has the least development. Some stretches of the film are not so involving, and others do not lead anywhere important. Still, the big argument scenes with Morteza and Mozhde are as intense as anything Farhadi has done. He adds a child (Matin Heydarnia), barely a toddler, and his crying deepens the row since it seems like the couple are already at their last nerve.
Farhadi’s purpose is not to show an unhealthy marriage, exactly, but to show how the everyday details of domesticity can serve as ammunition, as well as first aid, within moments of each other. “Fireworks Wednesday” refers to a Iranian holiday where everyone lights firecrackers in the street (if there as an official display, we do not see it). The irony is that the literal fireworks pale in comparison to the ones that Roohi witnesses. If she was more of an active participant, then “fireworks” would not be an apt metaphor. But since Roohi finally gets to go home and the moral of the story is for her, not us, Fireworks Wednesday is only essential for die-hard Farhadi fans.