I know there’s a great respect and love for film in Iran, because there are so many Iranian-set films made entirely outside the country by diasporan Iranian actors, writers, directors and producers (this one, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and Under the Shadow are just three that come to mind from recent years). I’m never sure how accurate these are to the experience of living there, but they generally function as allegories in any case — here we have love between two women trying to blossom under patriarchal surveillance. There’s a hint of Mustang to it (another film about the patriarchal limits of desire made by a largely expatriate crew to its country), but it’s somewhat less successful. The actors handle their material well, and putting attractive young women against saturated colours makes for a good-looking film, but there’s a sense in which it feels unfulfilling (though of course that’s also, I suppose, thematically apropos). Maybe I just wanted a happier ending for the central couple.
FILM REVIEW Director/Writer Maryam Keshavarz | Cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard | Starring Nikohl Boosheri, Sarah Kazemy, Reza Sixo Safai | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 7 February 2017
A quiet, thoughtful film about a middle-aged woman reflecting on motherhood, and how to weigh the feelings of her (almost grown) son with her own desires. It uses documentary footage of women talking about being mothers — the protagonist is a filmmaker — to introduce these themes, as she talks about her feelings in voiceover. Her son really is quite an annoying chap, but it leaves it until the very last moment to resolve her indecision.
FILM REVIEW Director/Writer Rakhshan Bani-Etemad | Cinematographer Hossein Jafarian | Starring Golab Adineh | Length 88 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 12 January 2017
Of all last year’s films I’ve belatedly caught up on, this is the most likely to have been top-10 rated. For all the difficulties of its creation — its director, after all, is still officially banned from making films, and so this one is released without any credits — it never feels anything less than fresh and insightful. The set-up, which undoubtedly has a documentary-like flavour to it for official censorious reasons, is that director Jafar Panahi is driving a cab around Tehran while surreptitiously filming his fares from a hidden dashboard camera, which he occasionally manipulates to turn around and face out to the street (though there appears to be a second camera somewhere in the roof). Needless to say, it’s not at all clear that all of this isn’t staged, but it’s a fascinating insight into a hidden society every bit as damning as, say, The Circle (2000), or one of Panahi’s earlier, licit, films, while being on the surface fairly sunny and easygoing — no little thanks to Panahi’s friendly, smiling presence in the driver’s seat. There’s also, as is de rigueur for a certain strand of Iranian filmmaking (his first two films were The White Balloon and The Mirror, the latter referenced here), an adorable young girl, Panahi’s niece, who seems pretty on-the-ball about filmmaking, and is the conduit for explicitly introducing the Islamic State’s official self-censoring rules about it. The film may never leave the confines of the car, but it never feels claustrophobic or limited as a result, but is instead a free-wheeling portrait of a society, and a ripose to Panahi’s official critics.
FILM REVIEW Director/Writer/Cinematographer Jafar Panahi | Starring Jafar Panahi | Length 82 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 19 January 2016
It’s a simple premise: a man drives around the outskirts of Tehran looking for someone who will help fill in his grave after he commits suicide. In many ways it’s a simple film, too, or at least it’s very straightforward. Kiarostami points his camera at our protagonist Mr Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) as he sits in the driving seat, and occasionally gets out. Sometimes there’s a reverse shot to see the man he’s talking to in the passenger seat, but it doesn’t overtly challenge one’s sense of film grammar. Except that in its very simplicity it hides a delicately shaded tale, which is largely unconcerned with the reasons for Badii’s actions, but more about the dialogue that happens as he looks for an accomplice. His interlocutors are working folk, migrants who’ve come to Iran from elsewhere (a Kurdish soldier, an Afghan seminary, a Turkish taxidermist), of differing ages, and in each of them Badii (or the viewer perhaps) seems to find an implicit challenge to his decision. After talking about his conscript days with the Kurd (who, in one of the film’s occasional bursts of something approaching comedy, runs away), Badii stops to watch the soldiers jogging by as the sun sets, chanting the refrain Badii had just been nostalgically recalling. His later dialogue with the seminary touches on religious arguments against suicide and we see Badii standing by a quarry afterwards, his shadow commingling with the parched earth being churned up by the machines. And the taxidermist, who has agreed to help Badii, talks of the transformative power of nature (which is what the film’s title alludes to), and again there are these long, gorgeous shots of the dusty landscape, with Badii’s car moving across it, as he drives to the picturesque spot he’s picked out to dig his grave. I don’t feel there are any spoilers in recounting this, as the film’s power and grace comes from the way it unfolds and the dialogues Badii engages in, in the world-weary faces (surely Badii is some kind of stand in for the director), and in the unexpected self-reflexivity of the coda, which hardly seems to answer any questions, but also places them in a different context entirely. Its simplicity of form can be challenging (not every critic has warmed to it, though it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in its year), but it lingers in the mind for a long time afterwards, and its enfolding mystery drew me back to watch it a second time in two days. Full understanding may never be possible, but despite its premise, it’s a film that seems to deal with the simple wonders of being alive.
Criterion Extras: Aside from a really pointless biography page listing a handful of films, and a trailer, the only significant extra is a filmed interview with (the sunglasses-wearing) Kiarostami where he talks about a number of issues related to his filmmaking, which is interesting.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami | Cinematographer Homayoun Payvar | Starring Homayoun Ershadi | Length 95 minutes || Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 1 August 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 26 July 2015, and at my home, Monday 27 July 2015)
There is a lot to like about this film. As a feature-length debut it casts a long (chador-clad) shadow, with a largely stylish use of its widescreen black-and-white frame, and a commanding central performance from the laconic Sheila Vand as the unnamed girl of the title. It’s a vampire film, but not a horror precisely, more of an existential mood piece, like the Jarmusch of Dead Man but without the deadpan humour, with a central character who takes her style cues from Anna Karina and the early nouvelle vague. It’s been called a ‘western’ as well, which I think gets at some of the frontier-like emptiness of its setting, nominally an Iranian town called “Bad City” but actually shot in California. But the style can be a weakness, as you get the sense that the project started with a visual motif — the forbidding figure cut at night by a woman wearing the traditional Iranian chador, the long cape-like black garment which is affixed over the head and billows out behind — with the film then being built up around this. So those sequences where Vand is walking down darkened streets have a compelling inky monochrome beauty, with her lithe movements practised at home in front of a record player, but when other characters are introduced — whether Arash Marandi’s putative love interest, or Marshall Manesh’s drug-addicted father — the narrative focus wavers a bit, as if uncertain what to do. At times, too, the film turns into something of a musical, as a track is cued up on the turntable then plays out at length, though the director’s taste seems geared towards mid-2000s indie rock, which doesn’t always seem to mesh with the forbidding atmosphere created by the musical score elsewhere. Possibly the most compelling other character is the even more laconic performance from Masuka, a cat, whose presence structures the film and also conveys key plot points to lovelorn Arash. However, for all this — and surely some of my reservations boil down to personal taste — it remains a strong and distinctive directorial debut with a compelling representation of female empowerment that undercuts the expectations created by its title.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director/Writer Ana Lily Amirpour | Cinematographer Lyle Vincent | Starring Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh | Length 101 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 28 May 2015
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Wednesday 15 October 2014 || My Rating excellent
There’s flashy auteurism of the sort that baits the juries of Cannes and Berlin, and then there’s the kind of solid humanist filmmaking that Iranian cinema is so good at delivering. This is not to say it’s without cinematic artistry — it’s evident here as in most Iranian films which gain distribution in the West (not least in the films of that critical darling, Abbas Kiarostami) — but Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s latest film exemplifies an attentiveness to the human dimension of storytelling, of just following the stories of a handful of characters over the course of 90 minutes. Which is all merely a wordy way to say that this was one of the most enjoyable films I saw at the London Film Festival. It comes on from the outset like one of those films (so popular with acolytes of Robert Altman in the 1990s) featuring multiple intersecting narratives, and though its tales do intersect, there’s no grand resolution, just the ongoing flow of human drama. One figure who recurs throughout is the video filmmaker (Habib Rezaei) who seems to hover on the edges of all the tales, though his attempts to document the world around him are frequently thwarted, whether by officious bureaucrats or unwilling participants. There are times when the proceedings seem a bit televisual (for some reason, the sequence set at a women’s shelter reminds me of a British TV play of the 1970s), but that needn’t be a bad thing, given the focus on dialogue, of people sharing with one another. There’s a real attentiveness to people’s stories, particularly of those who are powerless in different ways, and if there is something that unites all the various strands, it’s in Bani-Etemad’s clear desire to expose inequities within society, and her fascination towards people who are ordinarily marginalised. I could quite happily have watched many more such tales.
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Odeon West End, London, Sunday 12 October 2014 || My Rating likeable
Jon Stewart is well-known already for his work as a comedian and host of The Daily Show, engaging on a regular basis with current affairs, world politics and the incompetencies of his own government, but with this feature he moves into filmmaking. Thankfully, on the whole it’s pretty well-made stuff with some entertaining digressions, about how journalist Maziar Bahari was arrested on a visit to his native Iran to cover the 2009 elections and accused of being a spy. In the lead role is Gael García Bernal, who may not be Iranian but seems to specialise in this kind of role these days (like in No), the small pawn ranged against wider governmental forces of oppression. He does pretty well at it, though the film is bogged down in its middle section by longueurs as Bahari is detained in Evin Prison, though enlivened occasionally by the dialogues with his captor, the shadowy figure known only as ‘Rosewater’ (played by Kim Bodnia, also not Iranian). It all looks great and is edited together skilfully, and though not perhaps as narratively compelling as Ben Affleck’s Oscar-baiting Argo of a few years back, I feel it avoids some of that film’s pitfalls in presenting Iran at times as an exotic, dangerous Other. What is emphasised is more of the shared experiences of people under that regime that may be common to journalists in similar situations around the world. It’s a fine first feature, and I only hope that Stewart continues to develop his filmic voice, though in the meantime his television show continues to do pretty well.
CREDITS || Director/Writer Jon Stewart (based on the memoir Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy) | Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski | Starring Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia | Length 103 minutes
Like all film-lovers, I’ve had a complicated relationship with The Oscars™ over the years, but my general feeling is that I dislike the ways it rewards filmmakers and actors (and when it gets things right it’s usually for the wrong reasons anyway), and I dislike the way it affects how American studios create and distribute certain kinds of films. There are subgenres of ‘Oscar-baiting filmmaking’ that generally produce either torpid, listless, dull and often overlong films of little human interest but with plenty of empty emoting and visual grandstanding, or, as with last year’s winner The Artist (2011), perfectly entertaining little movies with an inflated pseudish cachet.
Argo falls into the latter camp: it’s entertaining and I enjoyed it for the most part, but I wouldn’t make any great claim for it being the height of film art. In fact, it’s rather campy in places: Alan Arkin and John Goodman as Hollywood studio people seem to be in an entirely different film. The scenes set in Iran at the height of the 1979-80 hostage crisis, though, are appropriately gripping, as we watch Ben Affleck’s CIA agent working to “exfiltrate” the six escaped US embassy workers, who are uneasily holed up in the Canadian ambassador’s residence (played by the ever-reliable Victor Garber).
Plenty of others far more knowledgeable than I have picked holes in the history, and I don’t doubt it takes liberties with the facts. More concerning is the demonisation of many of the Iranians, though the film’s animated introduction makes it clear that the US itself had a great part to play in the radicalisation of Iran and the overthrow of a democratically-elected government (as remains their wont to this day). Nevertheless, when it’s focused on the intimate human drama of these six Americans and the oddly far-fetched plot to get them out of the country, it makes for fine entertainment.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Ben Affleck | Writer Chris Terrio (based on the book Master of Diguise by Antonio J. Mendez and an article “The Great Escape” by Joshuah Bearman) | Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto | Starring Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Victor Garber | Length 120 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Wednesday 6 February 2013