Sheila Vand and Matt Dillon in ‘Land of Dreams’: Film Review | Venice 2021

In this political satire directed by Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari, an Iranian American woman grapples with the meaning of freedom.

The American future presented in Land of Dreams is not, unfortunately, all that far-fetched. In this beguiling political satire, directed by Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari, computer screens and cellphones are sleek and sexy, xenophobic attitudes persist in the name of a misguided nationalism, and the state still investigates its citizens for vague national security purposes. If it weren’t for the fact that the U.S. Census Bureau collects dreams — yes, dreams — it would be easy to mistake the film’s representation for reality.

Premiering at the Venice Film Festival in the Horizons sidebar, Land of Dreams was written by the late Jean-Claude Carrière and Azari, based on a story by Neshat. It’s a witty and thrilling take on American culture that benefits from its creators’ immigrant experiences and inventive style. The film, which is also visually stunning, cleverly examines the relationship between the surveillance state and personal freedom while also commenting on a surprisingly broad spectrum of American life, from the cliched suburban family to the Black artist haunted by the specter of the nation’s past.

Land of Dreams

The Bottom Line

A smart and entertaining political satire.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
Cast: Sheila Vand, Matt Dilllon, William Moseley, Isabella Rossellini
Directors: Shirin Neshat, Shoja Azari
Screenwriters: Jean-Claude Carrière, Shoja Azari

1 hour 53 minutes

Simin (Sheila Vand), a demure, acerbic young Iranian woman, is a government pawn, although she doesn’t know it yet. As an employee of the U.S. Census Bureau, she drives around her small, unnamed town, knocking on doors and asking whoever lives there increasingly intrusive questions. “What is your name?” “How many people live in this household?” “Now, tell me, what was the last dream you had?” Some of her interviewees are eager to share, immediately diving into detailed stories with vivid imagery. Others take some coaxing: They ask Simin if she knows who she really works for, what business the Census has collecting dreams (She doesn’t know and hasn’t asked), and why she goes along with it (It’s her job).

Even if it requires nudging, her subjects usually concede and, in the process of sharing their dreams, give Simin (and the government) unfettered access to their psyches. Occasionally a dream will inspire her, and after work, she’ll upload a video of her impersonating the interview subject in Farsi to her popular social media page. This secret playacting ritual helps her cope with the death of her father, a revolutionary who was executed in Iran.

Simin’s world changes when she’s asked by her boss, Nancy (Anna Gunn), to take on a big assignment: to infiltrate an Iraqi colony of former revolutionaries and gather information on their dreams. Although she accepts the job with little hesitation, the visit destabilizes Simin, who spends the rest of the film trying to come to terms with her ambivalent feelings about the United States. Joining her on this literal (after all, she still has interviews to conduct) and existential journey are Alan (Matt Dillon), her bodyguard, and Mark (William Moseley), a random hopeless romantic who claims he’s in love with her.

The trio’s exaggerated dynamic works thanks to the film’s sharp screenplay and strong performances from Vand, Dillon and Moseley. Vand (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), in particular, does a marvelous job at capturing Simin’s inner turmoil and general volatility. Perfectly timed smirks and seemingly uncharacteristic flashes of rage undercut any viewer expectations that the film will follow a predictable, or readily understandable, path.

In fact, Land of Dreams feels like a series of loosely connected vignettes. Simin’s interviews are not only microcosms of America’s rich cultural landscape — they’re also thrilling visual experiments and opportunities to engage with philosophical notions regarding the thin line between dreams and reality. One interview, with Mark’s mother, Jackie (Robin Bartlett), becomes a sublime audiovisual experience. As Jackie explains her xenophobic dream of being displaced by “others,” Simin, who sits stiffly on the couch recording, begins to hear the faint sound of a mariachi band. Suddenly dancers clad in scarlet dresses, their faces painted, presumably for Day of the Dead celebrations, appear in Jackie’s living room. They surround the duo and Jackie, engulfed in the details of her nightmare, becomes visibly agitated.

The more dreams Simin listens to, the more uncomfortable she becomes with the implications of her job. Dreams, she realizes, offer a window into people’s psychological states. They are powerful tools with the ability, as in Jackie’s case, to stoke fear and alienate, and to calcify existing divisions — whether those are based on religion, race, nationality or socioeconomic strata. She’s not sure she wants to be part of a mission to collect them. Hearing these stories also eventually helps Samin confront her difficult past and finally understand the chasm between the American dream and its more sinister reality.

Full credits

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
Production companies: Bon Voyage Films, Land of Dreams, Palodeon Pictures
Cast: Sheila Vand, Matt Dillon, William Moseley, Isabella Rossellini, Christopher McDonald, Anna Gunn, Robin Bartlett, Gaius Charles, Nicole Ansari, Mohammad B. Ghaffari
Directors: Shirin Neshat, Shoja Azari
Screenwriters: Jean-Claude Carrière, Shoja Azari
Producers: Amir Hamz, Sol Tryon, Christian Springer
Executive producers: Amir Neshat, Shirin Neshat, Fahri Yardim, Mark Amin
Director of photography: Ghasem Ebrahimian
Set designer: Rick Gilbert
Costume designer: Negar Ali-Kline
Editor: Mike Selemon
Music: Michael Brook; original songs by Mina Ghoraishi & Siobhan Carmody
Casting director: Lina Todd
Special effects: Dara Hamidi
Sales: Beta Cinema

In English, Farsi

1 hour 53 minutes