A row of people stand facing one man, against a light brown brick building.

‘Universal Language’ brings the Iranian New Wave to Winnipeg

Matthew Rankin's Cannes selection is a surreal embodiment of cultural yearning

Matthew Rankin's "Universal Hero" follows a white man in a Winnipeg with a mostly Persian community.

Courtesy of Metafilms

A film that, on paper, bears all the risky hallmarks of disrespectful appropriation, Matthew Rankin's Cannes Directors’ Fortnight selection Une langue universelle (or Universal Language) is an ode to Iranian life and cinema that few filmmakers outside the country have ever achieved, or even attempted. A surreal film steeped in cinematic yearning, the three-pronged, deadpan comedy unfolds in a culturally displaced Canada that resembles Tehran and its surrounding northern villages, yielding a highly unusual delight.

Rankin, a white filmmaker, casts himself in the primary, Farsi-speaking role of an unsatisfied Quebecois government cog who returns home to visit his mother in frigid Winnipeg. Along the way, he intersects with several ongoing stories that unfold in wryly amusing fashion, from a pair of grade-school girls, Negin (Rojina Esmaeili) and Nazgol (Saba Vahedyousefi), trying to fish frozen money out of a block of ice—a tale his grandmother once recounted to him—to local guide Massoud (Pirouz Nemati) leading visitors on a disorienting architectural tour.

Rankin's hybrid Winnipeg-Tehran has no special, sci-fi name. It is, for all intents and purposes, Winnipeg, but populated with people of Persian descent and dressed up with Farsi signs. Everyone speaks Farsi too, even when they discuss Canadian politics, making Universal Language feel like an absurdist work expressing the specifically diasporic dilemma of bifurcated identity. Rankin himself isn't Iranian, but his co-writers are—the aforementioned Nemati, and Ila Firouzabadi, who also appears in the film—and he was heavily impacted by Iranian cinema in his youth, and even visited Iran with the hopes of shadowing its great filmmakers. No such mentorship ever came to pass, even though he spent time in the country and gradually learned Farsi, but he wears his influences on his sleeve, in both his stylistic approach and the film's period-specific design.

As the film cuts between its various stories—each of which becomes more strange and surreal than the last—it feels temporally dislodged, with modern technology nestled within costume and production design from the 1980s, a time when Rankin was still a boy, and a time when Iranian cinema was undergoing a period of transformation, in the years following the Iranian Revolution.

A man stands facing a building with a mural painted on its wall in "Universal Language."

"Universal Language" is director Matthew Rankin's ode to Iranian life and cinema.

Still frame from "Universal Language"

While the genesis of the New Wave was Dariush Mehrjui's Gaav (The Cow), the artistic apotheosis of the movement was arguably spearheaded by Abbas Kiarostami in the '70s and '80s (and by his protégé Jafar Panahi in the mid-1990s). Perhaps the biggest influence on Universal Language is Kiarostami's Khane-ye dust kojast (Where is My Friend's House?) which was released in 1987, at a time when Rankin was around the same age as that film's child protagonist. Its focus is an innocent schoolboy, Ahmad (Babak Ahmadpour), navigating a world of complexity and adult hypocrisy, which he doesn't yet fully understand, and which occasionally takes the form of surreal, expressionistic night time vistas—a rare departure from the movie's (and Kiarostami's) penchant for naturalism.

Rankin, similarly, rides a fine line between Iranian neorealism and these notions of the surreal, as though the natural fabric and order of his Persian-populated world were something he had upset through his mere presence. The local Winnipeg characters all embrace him, but in drawing so heavily from Where is My Friend's House?—including in his quiet performance, with silences and lost stares that resemble grade-schooler Ahmad—he implicitly acknowledges his outsidership to this ostensibly foreign setting.

The movie's subplots, through their repetitive dialogue about Canadian cultural hallmarks, are marvelously tongue-in-cheek, but they also harbor a gentle naivete. As Rankin's character (also named Matthew Rankin) searches for his estranged mother, he's guided and befriended by numerous archetypes of the Iranian arthouse cinema that raised him, resulting in a film that doesn't just pay homage to the likes of Kiarostami, but effectively re-creates an artistic flashpoint through a tilt-shifted lens of nostalgia.

The frame perfectly impersonates films from the era, between its 4:3 aspect ratio and celluloid texture, to warm glows and striking colors embedded in the urban landscape. But these are more than mere visual tricks. The further Rankin is drawn into these stories, the more his own identity begins to fluctuate, culminating in a particularly moving and surrealist vision of what it feels like to see yourself within a foreign culture or artistic movement, with all the dangers of fetishization and similar power dynamics meticulously plucked from the equation.

To the untrained ear, Rankin speaks Farsi pretty well, or at least well enough to sound in tune with the rhythms of a Kiarostami film. More importantly, speaking in a second language doesn't inhibit his performance, which begins from a place of reserve, and gradually slides into the realm of painful longing as he reunites with his family.

As Rankin films himself reflected in a series of bedroom mirrors, his image and identity seem to split through a cinematic prism, resulting in a haunting climax that all but literalizes his identity crisis, and unearths the despondency that seems to come with it: a sense of self-loathing that accompanies the inability to find himself anywhere but in someone else's cinema. However, Universal Language also boldly makes the case that the Iranian New Wave—which has since become globally beloved in arthouse and festival circles, thanks to contemporary filmmakers like Panahi, Asghar Farhadi, and Mohammad Rasoulof—is a language that belongs to anyone who's touched by it, and who's willing to understand and respect it when folding it into their own creative DNA.

Published on May 31, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter