Lunch Time (Cannes)

By Alireza Ghasemi | Drama
An Iranian girl tries to enter a hospital morgue to identify her mother's body.

A 16-year-old girl — with a noticeable black eye — has come to the hospital to identify the body of her mother, who passed away. But because she’s young, the people in charge won’t let her into the morgue, due to the fact that she has no ID.

She faces great obstacles as she tries to navigate the opaque layers of policies and bureaucracy in order to identify the body. She has no uncle, grandfather or father to accompany her or vouch for her.

But after much begging and pleading, the receptionist finally allows her to go back. But when she finally gets a private moment with the body, the young girl has more on her mind than simply saying goodbye, as a whole other layer of action and meaning unfolds.

Writer-director Alireza Ghasemi’s short drama from Iran is a powerful, incisive examination of the harsh realities faced by young girls in this society. When faced with a difficult yet common situation, the main character isn’t regarded as an autonomous human being. Even though she’s young and without an ID, she constantly faces dismissal at the most fundamental levels because she’s not accompanied by a man who can vouch for her.

The storytelling uses naturalistic camerawork and intelligent, realistic writing to embed this assumption deep within the societal obstacles she faces. This insidious idea undergirds how various people talk to the young girl, and their assumptions of what she should and shouldn’t do form the biggest obstacle to her needs.

The dialogue works realistically to portray this, delivered with understated, subtle nuance and precision by a uniformly excellent cast. The characters don’t deliver messages or speak from soapboxes — they’re simply doing their jobs, armed with an understanding of what is or isn’t appropriate for a young woman. The young girl must constantly butt up against their attitudes. And as a result, the frustration she experiences is completely understandable, and empathetic viewers feel her helplessness as their own.

The film’s initial half works as a powerful social document in many ways, powerfully yoking attitudes about women to the obstacles faced by the young girl.

However, as the second half unfolds, the film gains a new layer of plot, creating suspense and tension that is almost thriller-like in its ability to draw in viewers with narrative questions so intriguing that they demand answers. By delving into the darker underside of the young girl’s situation — one that isn’t fully elucidated until a revealing conversation at the film’s end — we get a darker, more insidious look at how young women are controlled in this society.

An audience and jury favorite at Cannes, “Lunch Time” is like a Moebius strip of a narrative, in which one story is built up, only to be twisted in an entirely new direction. The deceptively simple narrative structure and writing reveal themselves to be much more sophisticated and sly, as it constructs one picture and then upends itself to illuminate a thornier, more complicated picture.

Yet the unifying thread is a powerful portrayal of control and domination, achieved on multiple levels. The young girl faces it not only at the bureaucratic, institutional level, but in a more personal, intimate way — which makes imagining her escape all the more difficult. The lack of true freedom is simply everywhere the young girl goes, shadowing everything she is able to do or not do, making its influence all the more pervasive and felt.

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