An exhausted Iranian couple that is struggling with fitting in their arrival in America crash in a hotel after a night of bickering. The hotel presents them with some hard, hard truths and becomes a haunted prison rather than the refuge they sought. Tightly scripted and wonderfully acted, the film finds its power through suggestion and implied concepts.
The beauty of international horror film festivals is the exposure of new perspectives on classic tropes. There is an undeniable underlying tension in the Persian-American horror film that offers layers of meaning that a more conventional Hollywood production could never give you. First and foremost, The Night is an extremely personal film. The trimmings of the immigrants tale helps provide useful and rich context, but this really is a riveting relationship story at the core.
Babak (Shahab Hosseini) and Neda (Niousha Jafarian) Naderi are a couple adapting to life in America. We meet them at a party hosted by their Iranian friends. They play games, enjoy bbq, and imbibe cocktails. It is squarely a part of the American experience, and yet everyone is speaking in Farsi. All is not great though for Babak and Neda. Babak has a horrible toothache, and even the alcohol won’t dull the pain. Neda is still struggling with the amount of time having to care for their baby, Shabnam, while Babak has had prolonged absences for business.
When driving home, neither of them are in a good position to be driving. Babak drank too much. Neda has had her license suspended. To make matters worse, the car navigation system is spitting out what appears to be bad information. And, for any of you who have had to travel the Los Angeles metroplex, you know how dependent you are on auto navigation. Naturally, tensions run high as the couple bicker and the baby is off and on crying. Eventually, Babak runs over a cat while meandering down back alley, signaling to the both of them that they should find a hotel to rest and recover.
They arrive very late at the Hotel Normandie. An old hotel that looks like it once was a grand lodge, but has fallen upon hard times. The neighborhood is dicey, and so the hotel is in lock-down mode for the evening. The bellman (George Maguire) greets them and tells them that the only room available is a suite. The worn-out couple gladly accepts it and shuffles off to their room.
Welcome to the Hotel California.
Neda and Babak set up the baby’s crib, and attempt to rest, but the hotel is not going to let them. Each of them is set upon by visions, some shared, and some reserved for them individually. Because the two are under marital stress, they aren’t communicating very well, to begin with, and they are reluctant to share what they are going through until the situation becomes really dire. In classic ghost story tradition, there is a lot of switching of illusions, complicating the matters even more. The Naderis are confronted with some hard, hard truths that they have to reconcile before the night is through.
There is a tricky mean streak to the deceptions that the hotel seems to be presenting them, but you soon realize there is a dark purpose at play. This is not a generic haunting, this is a tailored experience meant just for them. The director, Ahari, handles this movie like a magic trick. Revealing just enough information with narrative sleights-of-hand, sometimes giving you two important pieces of information at once. It isn’t until you unravel one of the puzzles until you understand the significant of the curious details from an earlier scene. It is really wonderful storytelling.
Also, importantly, there is no explicit denouement to the story. There is a whole lot of suggestion, but never is there a narrator to do an exposition dump to explain things for the audience. And I really liked that. Winks and nods. Shadows and knocks. I have interpreted that somewhere in this story, something killed Babal and Neda, and this hotel is purgatory. It is only a guess, but the clues line up. Sometimes it pays to have an ambiguous ending.
This is a top shelf supernatural haunting story, made all the richer by the cultural layering provided. Being an Iranian immigrant to the US cannot be an easy transition. In a political environment where your land of origin is deemed to be an enemy state, you have to be on your guard. It is the immigrant’s tale to shelter amongst your own, to find safety in numbers, and yet the beauty of the American Dream is that of finding your place in a land of freedom, but being Persian makes it much more difficult to branch out from the community. There is a sequence with a police officer (Michael Graham) that crystalizes the delicate state of how careful an Iranian immigrant needs to be and how frustrating it is.
Both Shahab Hosseini (a Cannes Best Actor winner for The Salesman) and Niousha Jafarian (aka Niousha Noor) are outstanding in their roles. These are nuanced and complex characters. Protagonists, yes, but the actors embody characters with the frustrations of holding dark secrets such that they grab your attention. The supporting cast is also excellent, though this is largely a two-person drama. Actually there are three. Little Shabham is completely adorable.
I can’t emphasize enough how wonderfully intricate this story is. It has no jump scares, or real violence, but the creeping dread rises through the film. There have been many terrific films at the Nightstream festival, and for me, this is one of the highlights. The Night should have been sent to the Academy for a Best Foreign Film nomination from Iran. There is now a triumvirate of landmark Iranian Horror films. Under the Shadow, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and The Night.
The art-house experts at IFC Midnight helped distribute this movie, and it bears all the traits of intelligent independent horror films that they specialize in . So we know that this WILL be released for an International Audience, and it deserves a big one. The movie is not rated, but it would suitably be considered to be PG-13, though don’t let that fool you. It’s creepy stuff, and the concepts are very adult.