In the ’70s, Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote a famous article where he used the term “fireflies” to refer to people who, for one reason or another, are marginalized by fascist and violent contexts but somehow still manage to find each other and ways of communicating with one another in the darkness of the shadows they’re pushed to. This is a major driving theme of Fireflies (Luciérnagas), the latest film by Iranian filmmaker Bani Khoshnoudi, presented at the 2019 International Film Festival Rotterdam.
The characters of her film are broken and lost, each in their own way; they are marked by a restlessness and instability that is reflected in the Mexican port city of Veracruz, where Fireflies (Luciérnagas) is set. Veracruz was once a place of luxury and vibrant culture but is now a place of decay and oxidized, crumbling buildings. Much like the Casablanca of that famous Michael Curtiz 1942 film noir, Veracruz is a depicted as a place of passage and transit, mirroring the internal struggles of its inhabitants as well as the current globalized situation of exile.
The main “firefly” of the film is Ramin (Arash Marandi), a gay young man from Iran who has fled the violent discrimination and prosecution of his home country. He did not know where he was headed and unexpectedly ended up in Veracruz. He doesn’t know where he will go to next, though he seems certain he wants to leave. His situation, we find, is the same as that of most other people around him.
For now, Ramin lives in a cheap hotel run by Leti (Edwarda Gurrola), and the two become friends when she agrees to help him learn Spanish, which he does not speak. Leti is in a limbo of her own: she finds out that her boyfriend, who abandoned her years ago to go to the United States, will return to Veracruz, and the news has left her troubled and confused. Ramin also strikes up a friendship with Guillermo (Luis Alberti), a former gang member from El Salvador who works with him at a construction site and who has left his home country to escape his life of violence and crime.
Ramin is able to overcome such obvious obstacles as the language barrier to communicate with Leti and Guillermo. Despite this, there is so much all three of them do not say. For example, Ramin never explicitly reveals his homosexualty; he is still scarred both physically and mentally by the violence he has suffered for being gay in Iran. This inability to share his true self is particularly problematic because, as he gets closer to Guillermo, he finds himself dangerously falling deeper and deeper in love with him, while at the same time reliving the trauma of a past relationship he left behind. Likewise, Leti keeps her own emotions bottled up. Even when her boyfriend returns to the city, she delays their confrontation and prefers to hide her emotions behind a shell of aloofness.
One the one hand, Khoshnoudi is keen on capturing the atmospheres of her settings and the realism of her situations with a documentary-like eye and reflex, also paying close attention to the sounds and the visuals of Veracruz; on the other hand, she tells her story through subtleness and metaphors rather than in a didactic manner. In this way, the way she communicates with her audience mirrors the way in which her characters communicate with one another.
Fireflies (Luciérnagas) is ultimately a film about the difficulties of being and expressing ourselves, as well as the violence that causes such hardships and prevents us from moving forward with our lives – a violence that can be manifested in many different ways. It often feels carried forward more by a type of cinematic dynamism than the narrative itself, which moves at a slow and even frustrating pace. However, this only makes the representation of those moments of restless instability in one’s life and celebration of their importance all the more powerful.