Review: Seven and a Half

Seven and a Half wants to be a difficult, important film. 

As a grim exercise in social realism lamenting the systemic erosion of female agency in Iran, it’s confronting and occasionally harrowing by design. Yet it’s a film that can struggle to find the emotional honesty in its stories, which infrequently resonate outside of their strident political messaging.

Utilising an omnibus structure, the film, directed by Navid Mahmoudi, chronicles fleeting moments in the lives of six women and a non-binary person who must reckon with the trials and tribulations of an impending marriage, or the aftermath of one. (After seeing the film, it is still unclear to me where the remaining half woman is, in case you were wondering.) Each story unfolds in a single unbroken take, an eye-catching flourish which thankfully never outstays its welcome or feels the need to congratulate itself on its technical wizardry. Akin to this year’s groundbreaking Pasifika portmanteau Vai (2019), this particular convention fluently weaves the lives of each individual together, their disparate lives coalescing within the film’s tapestry through their shared loss of agency.

The commodification of virginity is a recurring theme; child marriages, gender dysphoria, and domestic sexual servitude are also probed within different tales. While it provides insight into Iranian customs, these aren’t uniquely Iranian problems, lest anyone forget that 1 in 5 women in our country have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15, or that child marriage still occurs in the United States in jaw-dropping quantities.

It’s undeniably a film which illuminates vital issues, but I can’t help but be reminded of an all-too-common fallacy associated with righteous political filmmaking: to quote Kai Perrignon in his piece on Liu Jie’s Baby (2019), “It’s about good things, so it must be good“.

While the beauty of portmanteau feature films lie in their ability to unify a menagerie of themes and ideas, Seven and Half feels like it’s systematically running down a checklist of hot-button feminist issues. At its worst, it can be accused of paying lip service to gender inequality instead of providing genuine insight, and the occasional melodrama detracts from the urgency of its messaging. Each vignette documents a different conversation, which are often an unwieldy balance of exposition dumps and sermonising. It’s thematic exploration at its driest and most literal, where people only ever argue over and discuss patriarchal customs.

Luckily, Mahmoudi and cinematographer Mehran Mamdooh clearly demonstrate a genuine talent for directing such conversations, suffocating the audience in the uneasy calm of each extended take, and fluidly transitioning into an array of tight, dynamic compositions. One vignette has the camera circle its protagonist, Nahid (Anahita Afshar), hinting at the lack of physical exits as her husband’s ulterior motive unravels. The vast cast of actors also effectively sell the blunt material, telegraphing the lived-in depth of each character lacking within the script while deftly underscoring each tragic emotional beat.

Occasionally, this direct approach feels suitable, like in a gut-wrenching segment where a lead character, Niloofar (Sheida Khaliq), comes out to their father as both intersex and transgender. But even this particular story is hindered by its overt dramatic construction, straining to educate its audience without detracting from the emotional honesty of the scene. Elsewhere, we’re left with talking points in the guise of characters.

While the film should be commended for broaching the struggles of intersex and non-binary people (both under-discussed topics in cinema and elsewhere), it exhibits a frankly muddled understanding of the LGBT+ community. For example, it’s disappointing that every English plot summary available describes Seven and a Half as a film about seven women or girls, which is unequivocally false. While Niloofar was assigned a female gender identity at birth, he identifies as a male, and possesses biological characteristics which exceed binary notions of male or female bodies. Niloofar’s gender identity and intersex condition are revealed as a twist halfway through his story, which I imagine was intended to provoke audiences into questioning our assumptions; but it is not overly presumptuous to assume that the official plot summary of a movie is accurate. 

Moreover, the film’s awkward framing risks conflating intersex people with transgender people. Overlap between the communities absolutely exists, despite being uncommon, but the suggestion that Niloofar’s ‘congenital problem’ (as he describes it) justifies his non-conforming gender identity blurs two distinct groups with their own unique struggles into one. To further confuse matters, his repeated assertions of ‘I’m not a real girl, I hate men’ imply a spurious connection between sexual orientation and gender dysphoria (which overlap, but do not inform each other). It is worth noting, however, that any of the complications above could simply be the result of awkward translations.

Seven and a Half ultimately left me wondering whether its didactic, ham-fisted approach would resonate outside of the choir of film festival attendees and audiences who actively seek out independent feminist cinema. There’s undeniable craft on display, and its angry, urgent tone is frequently moving — but it feels oddly unimaginative to limit the film’s distinctive structure to a series of increasingly repetitive conversations, in spite of the rotating characters and topics. Podcasts exist for a reason.

Seven and a Half played at the Persian Film Festival.

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Jamie Tram is a writer, filmmaker, and screwball obsessive from Melbourne, Australia. His writing lurks at Senses of Cinema, Kill Your Darlings, and other places. You can direct all your complaints to @tram_i_am.

Jamie Tram