Men, Women and Dreams
An overview of Iranian cinema in 2016
Iranian and world cinema lost Abbas Kiarostami in July of this year. This tragic news notwithstanding, 2016 has been splendid for Iranian film. The Salesman by Asghar Farhadi won two awards at the Cannes film festival. Four Iranian films, namely Lantouri by Reza Dormishian, A Dragon Arrives! by Mani Haghighi, Valderama by Abbas Amini and Starless Dreams by Mehrdad Oskoui were featured at the Berlinale. Daughter by Reza Mirkarimi won two prizes at Moscow film festival; Malaria by Parviz Shahbazi showed in the Venice film festival and won the main prize at the Warsaw film festival; Inversion by Behnam Behzadi competed in Un Certain Regard in Cannes, and many other Iranian films showed in international festivals, such as Karlovy Vary, Batumi and Busan. Iranian cinema is on the rise again, being recognized as it was before, in the 1990s and the early 2000s. Here are a few of my top choices for 2016:
A Dragon Arrives! by Mani Haghighi
A movie that ought to be seen on the big screen. Unlike many Iranian movies that lose nothing when watched on TV, A Dragon Arrives! is a hallucinatory films that echoes A Wicker Man and Zelig, yet is also rooted in Iranian storytelling (think about A Thousand and One Nights), culture (the exorcism tradition in southern Iran), cinema (compare it with Close-up by Kiarostami) and Haghighi’s life (scenes that recall episodes from the filmmaker’s own childhood). A Dragon Arrives! may be the most polemical film of the year—some Iranian critics deemed it as “fake.” Indeed, it blends docudrama and mockumentary. However, an informed viewer can easily recognize the director’s intention. Although the film claims to be based on a true story, Haghighi gives us false tips and cues (we never discover what the titular Dragon is) and imagery and symbols that lead his viewers astray and frustrate expectations. Thus A Dragon Arrives! is best embraced as a mysterious detective story.
The Salesman by Asghar Farhadi
Asghar Farhadi is the most interesting Iranian filmmaker of recent years. His early films were perhaps uneven and sometimes predictable. However, he has always shown a knack for realism and social issues, as well as a talent for making actors deliver their best performances. Le Passe was a misfire, but I do appreciate A Separation and now The Salesman. The film builds a bridge between Arthur Miller’s play and life of its protagonist, Emad, a literature teacher, who loves Gholam Hossein Saedi (one of the best play and story writers of contemporary Iranian literature). The Salesman also delivers a sharp statement on the crippling contemporary social and cultural issues, such as individual privacy and rights. This rape/revenge melodrama owes a bit to the Hitchcockian thriller. I watched Paul Verhoeven’s magnificent Elle a few weeks after seeing The Salesman and was struck by the similarities between the two films. While Verhoeven’s tells a story of the aftermath of an actual brutal rape, with echoes of Bergman, Farhadi follows the consequences of an attempted rape that leads to destruction of a family. Emad and Rana are a childless couple, who both act in a theatre production of Death of the Salesman. They are forced to leave their home, due to dangerous construction next to it, and move to one whose previous tenant was a prostitute. Shortly after their move, a stranger attacks Rana in the shower. Through Emad’s reaction to the rape, the movie reveals deep cracks in society that paralyze the country’s middle class, and prove so deep that not even revenge can help close them.
The Salesman is the least talkative of Farhadi’s films. It emphasizes the silent moments, in which characters abosorb quietly what has happened to them as they decide on a course of action. Farhadi’s attention to composition and framing results in a work more polished visually thank his previous films.
Lantouri by Reza Dormishian
Lantouri is an audacious movie that tackles the theme of acid attacks. On its international poster, the film has been labeled as a “sick” love story. After experiencing the love, hate, anger, horror and vertigo throughout the film, we may realize that “sick” is indeed an appropriate word for it. In the story, Pasha (Navid Mohammadzadeh), the leader of the Lantouri gang, falls in love with Maryam (Maryam Palizban), a social worker. The movie starts when Pasha is in jail, along with other members of his gang, waiting for a retaliation punishment. Gang members, university students and social activists, as well as common men, comment on Pasha and Maryam’s story. The fact that Pasha and Maryam are almost never on-camera, and yet we get to know them well, is Dormishian’s great achievement. The movie is divided in two parts: in the first, we get to know the Lantouri gang members, while in the second, we follow the aftermath of Pasha’s acid attack on Maryam. A collage of fast-motion shots, close-ups and sudden calmness, Dormishian’s movie is largely montage based, with Haydeh Safiyari (his editor) playing a vital role in the process. Lantouri may seem uneven, at times, due to Dormishian’s condensed way of storytelling. Still, it is his most successful combination of collage style and social themes to date (the retaliation punishment sequence in the end is a good example).
For those who wish to delve deeper into Iranian cinema, I would like suggest a few more titles, such as Me by Soheil Beiraghi, an Iranian version of Under the Skin, with atmospheric music, minimal storyline, controlled performances and enigmatic tone that all add up to a believable nightmare; Standing in the Dust, by Mohammad Hossein Mahdavian, is a careful reconstruction of the Iranian life in the 1980’s, during the war with Iraq (in this regard, I also suggest Under the Shadow by Babak Anvari, a horror movie that happens during Iran-Iraq war and blends the horror genre with war metaphors). Life + 1 Day by Saeed Roustaie is one of the most acclaimed Iranian films of the past decade, not so much due to its script but rather its dialogues and acting, as well as its ability to convey a glimpse of those marginalized by poverty and addiction; A Very Ordinary Citizen by Majid Barzegar is a story of a simple life of an old man, derailed by falling for a much younger girl. As in Barzegar’s previous films, Rainy Season and Parviz, we follow the life of an isolated character through long takes, minimal dialogues and a brutal ending. However, in this film, the ending has a comic tone, a new touch for Barzegar. My last suggestion is Breath by Narges Abyar, a story of an imaginative little girl who narrates her poverty-stricken life during the Second Pahlavi regime, the Islamic Revolution and then the Iran-Iraq war. We see her story through animation scenes and live action ones. It may be a long film, especially if you prefer the animation scenes more than the live action ones however Abyar’s naturalistic approach and the devastating ending make it well worth it.