“You can’t understand until it happens to you.”
Roya, played by Mahnaz Afshar, listens to this line left on her answering machine repeatedly. It is a part of her husband, Ali’s, confession to his infidelity with one of Roya’s piano students, with whom he’s run off. Ali sees himself as a victim of his passion, but for Roya, it is one of many moments in which her emotions and how she feels them are constricted or reshaped by the people around her, both male and female. Snow On Pines is about her struggle to cope with those feelings on her own terms in a society where traditions dictate her every move. Though this story is colored by the Iranian experience, its ideological aspirations are universally recognizable and not limited to arbitrary borders. Roya’s conflict is seen all over the world, even in countries considered significantly more progressive and “liberated”.
Written and directed by Peyman Moaadi, co-star of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, Snow on Pines was banned for nearly 2 years because depicting women as victims of oppression, especially in relation to religious and social traditions, is a sensitive issue with Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. It’s not clear how this film got released after such a long period. Perhaps President Hassan Rouhani’s succession of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2013 – and his supposed commitment to women’s rights – played a role in the loosening restrictions around feminist subjects. Regardless, it’s a blessing the movie made it past Iran’s censors and into the rest of the world, as it showcases Moaadi’s thoughtful and keen talents as an artist, while also positively contributing to the discussion of women’s rights. He combines a handheld camera that gives a sense of intimacy to his subject, while creating beautifully textured compositions in sharp black-and-white. Much of the action takes place in Roya’s flat, and Moaadi mines this location of every vantage point possible, rarely showing the same space the same way twice. In a brief wide shot of Roya talking to her friend Maryam, Moaadi moves the camera behind the television so its rigid backing takes up space in the frame, creating depth and an image of coarse tension between the two friends. It’s this attention to detail and perceptive eye that creates black-and-white cinematography that puts Snow on Pines visually on par with Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, and it’s reminiscent of some of Ingmar Bergman’s work, like Wild Strawberries. It’s so visually rich that you may think it’s in color.
While the compositions are lush and engrossing, it’s not a quiet still-life of a film. Characters are constantly engaged by their environments and other characters from off-screen. Phones ring often, interrupting conversation, and Roya must constantly stop her students from playing because of some distraction. There’s a persistent awareness of the world outside of the frame, and Roya is usually juggling that world and its intrusiveness with her internal conflict. In a scene where Roya reveals to her best friend Maryam that Ali has granted her permission to divorce, their dialogue is broken up by a repairman working in the apartment. His distractions during this important conversation reach the point of comedic obstruction. Though sometimes these intrusions are funny, other times they are stifling and oppressing, showing the difficulty women have dealing with complex personal issues without breaking social taboos. When Nariman, a young man Roya finds herself hesitantly flirting with, brings her a CD in front of neighbors, Roya effortlessly tells him to thank his sister for the CD – a lie to cover up a relationship that isn’t even budding yet. Roya’s deftness at handling the situation is so natural it’s unsettling; that the simple act of borrowing a CD from a male is a cause for scandal shows how far women have to go in the fight for equality. Conversely, Ali’s infidelity is covered up by characters of both gender, and even Roya questions whether she could have saved their marriage had she caught on to his indiscretions earlier.
Even though the narrative structure is familiar, with a jilted woman who finds human connection with another man, the film isn’t beholden to it, allowing its message to activate the viewers instead of making them a passive spectator to plot. While Roya’s conflict with Ali is left on a somewhat open-ended note, Afshar delivers her final line to her husband, her first dialogue with him since discovering his infidelity, with honesty and determination, letting the viewer know that whatever happens next is her decision, not Ali’s, nor her friend’s, nor even director Peyman Moaadi’s. No one can write Roya’s story but her – an existential empowerment that every man and woman, Iranian or otherwise, has the right to exercise.
— Jae K. Renfrow