A 17-year-old boy faces bureaucratic hurdles when trying to enter a swimming competition in Summer with Hope, a deceptively complex story that only hints at the true nature of its narrative… but provides enough hints for viewers to take away profound meaning. This revealing drama from director Sadaf Foroughi (2017’s Ava) won the Crystal Globe grand prize at this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
The swimming competition in question feels at first like a minor irritant for young Omid (Mahdi Gorbani). He has an invitation to compete but is running late for the registration at a resort town in Iran, arriving with his mother (Leili Rashidi) from their home in Tehran.
Omid’s uncle Saadi (Alireza Kamali), who helped raise his nephew in the absence of his estranged father, is already at the competition, and warns Omid of complications. And Kamran (Milad Mirzaei), temporary director of the beach club behind the competition, informs the family that the invitation is not good enough, and Omid will not be able to register.
Almost Kafkaesque scenes involving the attempts to register Omid (whose name translates as the titular “hope”) feel reminiscent of the child custody case at the heart of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation; still, the stakes seem so low viewers might wonder why much of the first act of Summer with Hope go to such lengths to detail Omid’s struggles to register for the competition.
Two external factors are immediately noted: Omid’s unseen father threatens to reclaim his wife should the boy not win the competition, and Omid’s participation would also defer his obligatory military service. But there are also much deeper reasons behind Omid’s banishment from the competition, and his struggles to claim his place, that slowly and subtly make themselves apparent during the course of Summer with Hope.
Key to those reasons is Omid’s friendship with swimming instructor Mani (Benyamin Peyrovani), who helps the young swimmer in advance of the competition. Mani claims that Omid will be able to covertly participate in an open water event; Omid’s natural discipline is indoor swimming, however, and he needs to go through some rigorous training in advance.
While Summer with Hope begins as an almost lightweight examination of bureaucracy and the oppression of youth in modern Iran, it deceptively morphs into something entirely different by its tragic climax.
Incredibly, Summer with Hope’s central theme is never directly addressed throughout the film, with director Foroughi instead allowing the audience to only infer the true nature of what has transpired. Two successive climactic revelations – involving Mani’s wife (Sanaz Najafi) and local authorities – take place without the participation of the audience, the filmmaker instead relying on the audience to infer what is being said.
This may alienate those looking for easy answers, but Summer with Hope provides enough context for us to draw relevant conclusions. Recall the two hooded figures Omid avoids at multiple points in the film, and why he does so, and what he can reveal to the police that they don’t already know.
Summer with Hope’s nearly (but not quite) ambiguous subtly is also reflective of a movie set and shot in modern Iran, which has some of the world’s most discriminative laws against homosexuality. Audiences must interpret the film’s events in the same way as its characters, who can come to the same conclusions but must never speak them aloud.
The film is bolstered by some beautiful widescreen cinematography by Amin Jafari on the coastlines of northern Iran, along with inventive framing and use of empty space that recalls the films of Bresson or Bergman. Summer with Hope is an intimate, ultimately profound film that trusts its audience to pay close attention, and rewards those who do.