Jure Pl’s review published on Letterboxd:
Iranian film keeps surprising me. I thought I had this one figured out before I even began watching. I expected more or less a companion piece to Panahi's previous film, Badkonake Sefid (The White Balloon), and for the first 40 minutes or so, I was pretty much getting one. Both are stories (told mostly in real time), that focus on one girl's "quest", where they have to rely on kindness of the strangers to succeed. And in both films, the "point" is less on the stories of the girls, but rather in the people they meet. Compared to Badkonake, this film gives us more time to observe them go through their daily routine and listen to their dialogues. Regarding the latter, it does seem that Panahi had a specific reason in mind.
It connects to the issue of women's role in the conservative Iranian society, something that he would be more explicit about in his later films (at least Dayereh, but apparently also Offside which I've yet to see). In Ayneh this happens through several dialogues. There is one towards the beginning of the film between a teacher and another man about the clothes she should wear at a wedding, there is the very notable bus ride (where men and women are segragated), where we see women of various ages go on with their daily routine. We hear an older woman talk about being unable to be close to her family, who resent her for her accent, and want her to change her "dated" clothing. We observe a woman read palms (as in - tell fortune) to another woman, saying (and seemingly correctly guessing) how she is having trouble with her husband and how she should spend her husband's money, so he won't be able to get a second wife. And then later when she does the same with a young girl, telling her mother how she'll be a better child to her than a son would be. These things might be insignificant, but they did leave me something to think about in regards to Panahi's intentions with the film. More obviously there is a scene in a taxi car later on, where the driver and another female discuss what the role of a woman in the family should be, with their views obviously differing.
But the memorable part in this film, and what completely threw me, is what happens at about a 40 minute mark, which adds an entirely new layer to the film, while also giving meaning to its title. I don't want to spoil it, so if you're reading this but haven't seen the film, I advise you go see it first. Let's just say that it follows the tradition of several Iranian films of blending the reality and fiction. It is worth it.
Now, I'm fairly sure that breaking the fourth wall here was engineered. It's all just a touch too convenient to actually be belivevable as a "true" story (the actress' story mirroring the part she played, "forgetting" to take off the mic, a few too many cuts etc.). That doesn't make the film any less impressive though, it had to take a lot of planning of course, and because of that I'm still not sure whether all the people that Mina meets in the second half, are actually actors (or at least aware/told they're in a film), or just people that the crew had her meet. Either way, the point is clear. This is not the first time I've seen an Iranian film that would chose to toy with the film's structure, and I think the point is similar - despite the realistic and observational style, we are made aware that we are still seeing a film, but also that the film reflects reality (or vice-versa). Even though the girl "escapes" the film, she still plays her part in it, simply because the two are so interconnected.
So there you have it. An immensely clever film, that looks very simple at first glance, but gives a lot of food for thought even before the "twist" midway through. After that you're bound to have a "WTF look" on your face for a bit (or say that phrase out loud, like I did), and I'm sure the director's decision won't be to everyone's tastes, but I for one admire it, and feel it really elevated the film.
Just a final completely unrelated note - while I definitely wish to visit Iran one of these days, I'm not sure I ever want to cross a street in Teheran. It looks like an adrenaline sport.