Cairo 2014 Review: MELBOURNE, An Intense Domestic Suspense
One of the most gripping films I've seen in ages, Nima Javidi's fiction feature debut Melbourne just won the Golden Pyramid for Best Film at the Cairo International Film Festival, and deservedly so. It proves that you don't need an unbelievable, far-fetched scenario to create great suspense. Ostensibly a domestic drama, Melbourne sets up its scene in 20 minutes, and then spends the remainder of the film keeping its audience on the edge of their seats, all in one location, with a simple yet plausible and all-too-frightening turn of events that will leave a couple shattered.
Amir (Peyman Moaadi) and Sara (Negar Javaherian) are preparing to move to Melbourne later that night. They and Sara's sister are packing up their things and having typical yet light arguments and discussions. They agreed to look after a neighbour's baby for a few hours when the nanny needed to go out. But soon, they discover that, rather than sleeping, the baby is dead. When the baby's father comes to collect her, it sets of a chain reaction of lies, battles, and subterfuge with a heart-wrenching conclusion.
Set almost entirely in a single location, Javidi sets up a scene of relative domestic harmony; Sara and Amir seem to have to justify their decision to go to Melbourne to their family, who question whether they will ever return. The apartment setting is spacious enough to allow movement, but contained enough that claustrophobia and panic sets into the characters are soon as they are trapped by their situation. In one scene, Amir sends Sara into the room with the baby while he deals with a visitor; when he fetches Sara, she has shrunk into one corner of the large space. The contained space also keeps the tension high, as any moment, someone might walk into the bedroom and discover the baby. What would already be an intense day, with moving and dealing with family issues, is made almost unbearable by the death.
On the one hand, you want to yell at the screen, to tell Amir and Sara to just confront the situation, tell the truth and deal with the police; on the other, you can understand how their subterfuge gets out of hand until it seems impossible to get out of it. As a serious domestic dispute between the baby's parents gives Amir and Sara time to figure out their situation, they move back and forth between trying to place blame on each other to covering up each other's actions. Both are intelligent, kind people caught in a terrible lie with seeming no means of escape.
Audiences might remember Moaadi from A Separation; his performance here is no less amazing, and the scene when he discovers the baby is a master class in acting. He and Javaherian make completely characters in a small amount of time, allowing the audience to believe not only in their inherent goodness, but how that goodness can put them in such a situation, when it is challenged by the threat of having your life torn apart by an accident. When they are confronted by others, who know nothing of what has happened, Moaadi and Javaherian must put on yet another layer of performance to hide behind, which they achieve with such subtleties that stab at the audience with such pain and sympathy.
Undoubtedly, this is one of the best films I've seen this year. It takes a simple yet horrible scenario, and plays it out at the perfect pace, with such tension, anger and sadness that the conclusion is both heartbreaking and inevitable. With incredible performances, excellent use of space, and such confident yet understated directing, Melbourne can count itself among great suspense films that comes in through a different door. Again, it proves that you don't need anything larger-than-life, or even a large budget, to create suspense and drama that will leave the audience stunned.