In a mainstream American film, the premise of the aging ex-husband coming to live with his former wife and her new husband (who is also the ex-husband’s ex-best friend) would be played as broad comedy. There’s the manly resentful chest-beating leading to a detente where they get drunk together at a bar, there’s a scene where the ex-husband walks in on the couple in flagrante delicto—it’s easy to envision. Alternately, this premise promises so much inherent meat for actors to dig their teeth into—and potential titillation—that it could be translated to overwrought melodrama (the wife falls in love with her former husband again) or horror with the right mindset (the ex-husband is a slasher). It’s less easy to envision a scenario where this premise is played for exquisite, melancholy mundanity—where each interaction among these uncomfortably interconnected three roles feels utterly true—but that’s precisely what African Violet accomplishes. Directed by Mona Zandi Haghighi in her second feature film (and based on the story of a female relative), African Violet tangles these three tight and tense knots of characters together in ways that reveal the lengths to which we all perform different roles in different areas of life—and are different versions of ourselves around different people. 

Af Vi.jpg

The trouble, then, is when those versions come into collision with one another—when their jagged edges don’t quite fit in a logical way. That’s the case with Shokoo (Fatemeh Motamed-Arya), who brings her ex-husband Fereydoun (Reza Babak) from Tehran to live with her and her second husband Reza (Saeed Aghakhani) in their small town. Fereydoun has been placed in a nursing home by his and Shokoo’s children, from whom Shokoo is estranged, but with Reza’s blessing, Shokoo takes in Fereydoun for an indefinite period of time until he recovers from a largely unspecified illness. Despite all three technically agreeing to this arrangement, it’s strained from the start. For his part, Fereydoun spends the first chunk of the film mournfully silent, gray moustache hanging down over his mouth, seemingly about five seconds away from crying. Reza disappears into his woodshed, burying himself in carpentry projects while feeling emasculated that everyone seems to know their business. Shokoo tries to manage the two men’s emotional states and take care of house and home. Over the course of the film, Shokoo’s industriousness begins to come across as a way of staying busy with sundry tasks to distract herself from thinking too critically about why she brought Fereydoun to live with her. Is it some form of love? Is it a chance to confront Fereydoun over his failings as a husband, or is it atonement for leaving him for his best friend? Does it matter?

As a film, African Violet is well-crafted and handsome—a perfect ninety minutes of story. The shots are bathed in warm, autumnal light backed by languorous piano and cello, with a smattering of establishing images of the landscape and of daily life around the house to root the viewer in a sense of place. Indeed, the location is so purposefully centered around the house, and around the courtyard where the family grows plants and hangs laundry to dry, that it would not surprise me if African Violet were developed at one point as a stage play. The fraught connection among the three protagonists is what animates the film, with the limited use of setting enhancing the drama, making it at times feel purposefully claustrophobic, but never stealing the spotlight. 

Fereydoun and Reza may be bound together by their destroyed friendship—at one point, Fereydoun accuses Shokoo of leaving with his best friend—as well as their connection, however fragile or well-worn, with Shokoo, but over the course of African Violet they also become closer through minor hijinks, and by having to cover for one another to keep certain secrets from Shokoo. While Reza treats Fereydoun with detached courteousness early on, the dam breaks about twenty minutes in, when Fereydoun wakes up with ruined sheets and mattress, and looks on with heartrending shame that turns to silent relief as Reza immediately offers to help him: “Men are brothers. We’ve all messed up sometime in our lives. What matters is that our women don’t find out about them.” In this case, hiding the mess from Shokoo means burning the sheets and mattress and accidentally buying an exorbitantly expensive replacement on credit, only adding to Reza’s apparently longstanding debts with a friend. Fereydoun gets to return the favor later in the film, with an almost imperceptible slyness, when he offers Reza his credit card and tells him to wipe out his debts, repeating Reza’s own mantra back to him.

The version of Shokoo that Fereydoun knew is a woman who was an imperfect mother to their children, who liked to sit with him and make up stories about random passers-by, who played backgammon with him and was the only person to beat him. For Reza, Shokoo was always Fereydoun’s wife, whose eyes entranced him, whose beautiful singing voice from a nearby alleyway rescued him from despair and depression, whose interest in helping others and giving advice can also backfire catastrophically. Obviously, all of these aspects of Shokoo’s character are true, but don’t quite seem to match up into a whole person for either man. Reza can only sit on the other side of the backgammon board from Fereydoun, astonished and quietly resentful, insisting that Shokoo doesn’t know how to play. Shokoo knows both these men inside and out in different, equally legitimate ways: she knows Fereydoun loves African violets (which symbolize spirituality, wisdom, and faithfulness) and that when Reza appears to push her away by storming off to the nearby park, it’s really a plea for her to come to him. The tensions among these three simmer and bubble up throughout—they don’t explode in dramatic, overt fashion to upset the tonal balance of the film. 

A secondary plot that begins with Shokoo helping the daughter of a friend (or her niece; it’s not clear whether “auntie” is being used literally or affectionately) without her mother’s knowing and ends with Shokoo spending a night in jail on suspicion of running a brothel both escalates and is resolved a little too quickly. However, this storyline does serve the narrative purpose of illustrating how deep the wedge between Shokoo and Reza has grown during Fereydoun’s stay; it also gives us an opportunity to see Fereydoun display real concern and care for the girl’s mother.

Perhaps in our period of extended, endless quarantine, people are not necessarily in the mood to watch a movie that consists of subtle and uneasy interactions—taking place largely within the confines of a home—among three people who know each other too well. Indeed, African Violet has gone largely under-appreciated by American film audiences.