Review: Atomic Heart (Ahmadzade, 2014) – CAAMFest 2016 Preview

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Drunk and giggly, Arineh (Taraneh Alidoosti, Fireworks Wednesday and About Elly) and Nobahar (Pegah Ahangarani) leave a party and begin driving home. The two women, who are evidently close friends, hum children’s tunes and talk casually about leaving Iran, perhaps for good. Along the way, they pick up their friend Kami (Mehrdad Sedighian), a man exuding urban cool, and the trio of twenty-somethings continue the wrong way down a one-way street, laughing and joking.

Arineh’s bad driving habits eventually land them in a minor car accident. While Kami and Arineh negotiate with the other driver, a George Clooney-esque stranger intervenes and suggests a financial settlement to avoid police involvement. Kami goes to the ATM for cash, but due to a national distribution of stipends that evening, all the ATMs seem to be out of money. Meanwhile, the stranger, whose name is Toofan (Mohammad Reza Golzar), pays off the driver but disappears before the police come.

Despite Arineh and Nobahar’s efforts to evade him, Toofan keeps mysteriously appearing everywhere they go. The Dude, Where’s My Car? atmosphere rapidly turns The Master and Margarita as their debonair companion reveals himself to be a sinister emissary from an alternate reality (or, as we begin to suspect, perhaps the devil).

There are no fancy visual effects in this surrealist film. The hints of the supernatural are just that–hints. Besides his uncanny ability to show up wherever the girls are and his friendship with a man he claims is the alive-and-well Saddam Hussein (who, due to Tehran’s pollution, speaks through a tracheostomy valve), Toofan might be nothing more than a dangerous madman. Though most likely not.

The film’s former English title, “Atom Heart Mother,” is not, as I originally thought, just a bad translation, but rather a reference to the Pink Floyd song of the same name. The band had named their instrumental suite after a newspaper headline about a pregnant woman who received an “atomic-powered pacemaker.” References to Iran’s internationally controversial nuclear program pervade the film. In one scene, Kami recounts a dream he had in which Tehran is destroyed by an atom bomb explosion that lights his cigarette. In another, Toofan describes the “other world” as one where nuclear radiation has neutered everyone’s emotions, and an “anti-nuclear scientist” is the symbol of life and hope.

I’m sure there were allusions, meanings, and coy critiques I missed in the dense script, not being Iranian nor a speaker of Farsi nor particularly pop-cultured, but I don’t care. The high-energy, bizarre Atomic Heart is immensely entertaining and original and is undoubtedly worthy of becoming a cult favorite. This film marks second-time director Ali Ahmadzade as one of not only Iran’s but the world’s most promising filmmakers.

Don’t miss Atomic Heart at CAAMFest this month. The film screens at the Castro’s Roxie Theater at noon on Saturday, March 12.

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