Mostafa Keshvari’s new feature, Unveiled, is a drama about a Muslim woman who finds an outlet for self-expression and freedom through acting.
Farash (Sara Omran) is a spirited young wife and mother who has no problem balancing her religious faith with a healthy curiosity about life in general.
Her husband Saeed (Hani Mefti) is far more rigid, however, and uses religion like a cudgel to control his wife. He has a whole list of restrictions and rules for her — particularly around sex — that he attributes to religion; it’s essentially the same anti-female fanaticism peddled by MAGA Republicans who call themselves Christians.
In Unveiled (as the title suggests, things lean a bit to the heavy-handed here) Farash and Saeed and their seven-year-old daughter have just moved to an unnamed city. They have left family and friends behind in a smaller Muslim community and live without that support in this new place; Saeed is hyper-vigilant about protecting his little family and tries to shut out the world as much as possible.
This doesn’t sit well with Farash, who works as a tutor and goes out and about in the city to meet her young pupils. She is an interested observer of life in the city, and not as fearful as her husband.
One of Farash’s students has a mother who’s an acting coach. By chance, Farash one day observes the woman giving an acting class. She’s captivated by the way the acting teacher, Elise (Melanie Chevrier), inspires her theatre students toward self-knowledge and freedom of expression.
In time, Farash begins to take acting lessons too, keeping it all a secret from her husband. It is hugely liberating to her and to her sense of self, freeing her notions of religious expression too. (Scenes of Farash embracing her inner actor by going to a sex toy shop dressed as someone else and learning to holler “fuck” seem wildly unlikely, but here we are.)
When Saeed finds out that Farash has been taking acting classes, there is hell to pay, and Unveiled slides from melodrama into horror.
Although the film quietly shows the sort of anti-Muslim sentiment on display in any city, all that subtlety is wiped out by the character of Saeed, who is written as a stereotype and who turns to primitive violence. It is a jarring note in a narrative that seemed intent upon exploring ideas of faith, feminism and self-expression, not that the exploration gets very far.
Keshvari, who wrote, directed and produced the movie, is an Iranian-born Canadian filmmaker who won more than a dozen awards with this film when it was on the festival circuit for a year or two (and originally titled Unmasked.)
The story was created when then-President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order banning foreign nationals from several mostly Muslim countries.
The attempt to formalize Islamophobia in the already xenophobia-rich America has had ongoing repercussions, despite the fact that President Biden ended the “Muslim ban” as soon as he took office.
It is fertile ground for a drama such as Unveiled, but Keshvari unwittingly undermines his own good intentions with the two-dimensional character of Saeed.
It is also possible that the white-woman-acting-class-saviour who leads Farash to a form of freedom will be looked at askance by many viewers.
Unveiled has a good feminist story to tell about what happens when the ties that bind become a noose. The overlay of strict formal religion (your choice — every orthodoxy oppresses women) just confuses the issue.
The film is dedicated to Mahsa Amini, “and all the brave women fighting for freedom of choice.”