In resiliently fighting for their human rights and dignity, Iranian women were deservedly named TIME magazine’s Heroes of the Year in 2022. Their fierce uprising erupted last fall, after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was arrested by the morality police for not fully complying with the government’s antiquated dress code, and died three days later in police custody. Set in the ’90s in an Australian city, writer-director Noora Niasari’s quietly powerful “Shayda” doesn’t, on the surface, have a direct connection to these recent events. But one can’t help but detect the same strength and heroic spirit in the film’s eponymous protagonist, a young Iranian woman who demands a free life on her own terms, away from the shadow of her abusive husband, and the patriarchal norms and codes of conduct that suffocate her existence.
If “Shayda” (with Cate Blanchett among its executive producers) skews too predictable at times and reaches an ending you can spot from the first act, that’s because the male abuser’s playbook is often predictable too. In that regard, we know the likes of Shayda’s husband both in real life and across various American and international films, from “I, Tonya” to “Herself” to “Custody.” We’re acquainted with the patterns in which these men behave, intimidate, game the system and somehow manage to convince the authorities that they are changed and, therefore, deserve a new chance. Not unlike some of the aforementioned titles, “Shayda” shows what happens when that new chance is granted to such violent abusers, who often have no intention or capability of renouncing their entitlement.
Still, there is hope for Shayda (the terrific Zar Amir Ebrahimi, a recent Cannes winner for “Holy Spider”) at the film’s outset. We meet her as she gets settled at a secret women’s shelter along with her adorable young daughter Mona (seven-year-old Selina Zahednia, remarkably adept), an observant character based on the filmmaker’s own experiences: She, too, was raised by a courageous mother who found refuge in one such center when Niasari was just five years old. Under the protective wing of the home’s generous and no-nonsense director Joyce (Leah Purcell), Shayda puts on a brave face for the impressionable Mona and claims small pockets of sanity and self-worth in her daily life. On the one hand, she prepares for the arrival of Nowruz (Persian New Year); on the other, she attempts to integrate herself with the shelter’s other residents, despite occasional being subjected to casual racism and prejudice.
In sensitively rendered scenes, we witness Shayda’s phone calls with her fretting mother in Iran: Old-fashioned yet concerned, she insists that Shayda return to her husband Hossain (Osamah Sami) in order to avoid further gossip and ill-will from narrow-minded friends and relatives. “At least he is a good father,” she cluelessly insists. Shockingly enough, the law aligns with this toxic line of thinking, granting Hossain— who’s adamant to return to Iran — unsupervised visitation rights that derail Shayda’s newfound sense of freedom and safety. At first, Hossain commits to a false image of a new and improved man who just wants to be with his family and support the dreams of his wife, a former academic with a scholarship tragically revoked by conservative customs. But having survived even sexual violence in Hossain’s hands, Shayda knows better. And so do we.
Niasari nimbly and steadily deepens “Shayda” with a filmmaking style that carries traces of a documentarian’s off-the-cuff alertness, braiding it with qualities akin to a thriller. Through DP Sherwin Akbarzadeh’s fluid and immersive camera movements, the film’s opening is a perfect example of this verité-style intensity, as Shayda tries to familiarize Mona with different safety touch-points at an airport, in case Hossain tries to abduct her. Elsewhere, the filmmaker similarly makes sure that the idea of Hossain feels as terrifying as his image throughout, while we trace Shayda’s growing discomfort across malls, parks and nightclubs as she opens up to her liberated friend Elly (Rina Mousavi) and develops feelings for Elly’s relative Farhad (Mojean Aria).
Along with the rest of the troubled women in the shelter, these two characters seem somewhat underdeveloped, retrofitted to a complex narrative as obvious mouthpieces. But Ebrahimi overcomes these minor shortcomings, with a performance that’s deceptively simple, even regal, in conveying Shayda’s internalized battles through understated moments, with nothing more than a delicate look or a pregnant silence. Equally impressive are Zahednia as the wordlessly traumatized Mona — Niasari clearly has a special way with child actors — and Sami, a villain both blood-curdling and disturbingly familiar. The greatest asset of “Shayda,” however, is its unmistakably feminine spirit of perseverance, one that runs wild and free in this promising debut.