"Beautiful City" - Asghar Farhadi (2004)

Asghar Farhadi’s second feature film, Beautiful City (Shahr-e-Ziba, 2004), was a demonstration that the youthful writer-director’s cinematic prowess was already well-formed [1,2].  Like his subsequent and more well-known films – Fireworks Wednesday (Chaharshanbe Suri, 2006), About Elly (Darbarye Elly, 2009), A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin, 2011), The Past (Le Passé, 2013), and The Salesman (Forushande, 2016) – this earlier film featured an  examination of complex issues associated with serious interpersonal relations and engagement. And also like those later films, the title of the film had an ironic and somewhat ambiguous connotation.  Shahr-e-Ziba is the name of a neighborhood in northwestern Tehran where the government’s Juvenile Detention Center (a prison for the underaged) is located.  The action in this film begins in that center and concerns the fate of two young men who have been detained there. 

At the start of the film, the teenage prisoners in the Juvenile Detention Center stage a boisterous and officially disallowed birthday party for one of their members, Akbar (played by Hossein Farzi-Zadeh).  The party was triggered by Akbar’s rowdy pal A'la Pour Salehi (Babak Ansari).  But far from appreciating the party thrown for him, Akbar suffers from a fit of depression, because since he has now reached 18 years of age, Akbar realizes that he can be immediately transferred to an adult prison and ultimately executed for the crime he had committed.  Two years earlier, Akbar had been convicted of murdering his girlfriend, Maliheh, but because he was only 16 at the time, he was a juvenile and could not be hanged for his crime.  Now he is no longer a juvenile. Soon Akbar is taken away in a truck to another prison.  This is the last time the character Akbar appears physically in the film, but the question of his fate remains at the center of the story.

When A'la realizes and comes to dwell on his friend’s dire fate, he starts plotting ways he can escape the detention center and try to save Akbar’s life.  He is aided by a sympathetic detention center guard, Ghafoori (Farhad Ghaemian), who feels Akbar is a redeemable soul.  Ghafoori fakes some records in order to arrange for A’la to get an early release in the hopes that A’la can do something for Akbar on the outside. 

One of the reasons why Beautiful City has not had such widespread international distribution as Farhadi’s subsequent films is that its narrative requires the viewer to have some understanding of Iran’s implementation of the Muslim-based penal code.  In connection with capital punishment, this entails some significant differences from policies carried out in Western societies.  In particular, a convicted murderer can have his death sentence commuted if his victim’s family consents to offering their forgiveness.  This entails the murderer’s family offering “blood money” to the victim’s family as some sort of compensation and an act of contrition.  Iranian scholar Homa Omid (Professor Haleh Afshar) offers more details on the subject [3]:
“Murder is punished by retribution; but the murderer can opt for the payment of diyat, blood money, to the descendants of the murdered, in lieu of punishment (Article 1 of diyat laws).  Whereas killing a man is a capital offence, murdering a woman is a lesser crime:
Should a Muslim man wilfully murder a Muslim woman, he must be killed, but the murderer can be punished only after the woman’s guardian has paid half of his khounbaha (blood money, or the sum that the man would be worth if he were to live a normal life; this is negotiated with and paid to the man’s family) (article 5 of the Qassas laws).
By contrast, women murderers have no blood money and must be executed (article 6).  Similarly violent attacks against women, resulting in maiming or severe injuries, can only be punished after payment of mutilation money to the male assailant before retribution can be administered.  The reverse does not apply (article 60).”
So with respect to  Beautiful City, these laws mean that Akbar can avoid execution if his dead girlfriend’s father, Abolqasem Rahmati (Faramarz Gharibian), can be convinced to give his consent to forgiveness.  The sympathetic Ghafoori had already tried and failed several times to get this consent from Abolqasem, and now it is up to A’la to see if he can convince the bitter old man  to sign the consent.

What makes Beautiful City particularly interesting, though, is not just Akbar’s fate but more the presentation of an interactive matrix of attitudes concerning how we respond when things don’t go the way we want.  In this connection I detect four categorical attitudes that drive people in these circumstances and that Farhadi has on display in the film:
  • Revenge (R), retaliation, and “justice”. Someone must be found to “pay the price” for what has gone wrong. For many people, it is an “eye for an eye” world, and they get psychological satisfaction from seeing someone punished.  When I ask many sincerely religious people why they support capital punishment, they say they support it, not because it might deter future capital crimes, but merely for the sake of “justice”.  For them punishment is a reward for the rest of us.
     
  • Compassion (C) and forgiveness. On the other side is the feeling of compassion for one’s fellow beings.  This involves seeing the potential for godliness in everyone, even criminals.  Everyone can be rehabilitated and connected with the god that is always there inside of him or her.
     
  • Utilitarianism (U). One makes the best, in terms of personal utility, of whatever situation one finds oneself in.  This can even encompass the idea of doing seemingly selfless deeds and showing compassion in order to enhance one’s reputation.  In the context of when something or someone has gone wrong, it can often mean just forgetting about it and moving on.  Most people are counseled to follow this path.
     
  • Love (L).  True love is in a category all its own.  By this I don’t mean brotherly love or compassion – that category (C)  has already been mentioned.  And I don’t mean the ego-boosting feeling of being desired romantically (U). True love is the delirious and irrational desire to give oneself totally to one’s beloved.
The main characters in Beautiful City take on some of these attitudes at various times as the narrative plays out. In particular, principal character A’la takes on all four of these attitudes at various points in the story.

Note that almost all religions, intended as they are to be universal, have doctrines and rules that cover all four of these attitudes.  But as we see in Beautiful City, there can be complicated situations for which none of these attitudes offers a clear path, and religious doctrine may not offer a solution, either.

Continuing with our account of the story of Beautiful City, when A’la is released from the detention center, Ghafoori drops him off at the home of Akbar’s only living relative, his older sister Firoozeh (Taraneh Alidoosti).  The beautiful and expressive Taraneh Alidoosti, by the way, has appeared in a number of Farhadi’s films (Fireworks Wednesday, 2006; About Elly, 2009; and The Salesman, 2016), and her performance here is a crucial element in this film’s effectiveness.

Firoozeh has a small baby and lives in an apartment in front of which there is a soda pop stand operated by a man who appears to be her husband.  Firoozeh tells A’la that she has been trying for two years to convince Abolqasem to consent to commute Akbar’s death sentence, but the stubborn man won’t budge.  A’la and Firoozeh agree, however, to keep trying.

Soon A’la and Firoozeh are virtually camped out in front of Abolqasem’s home as they accost him daily with entreaties for forgiveness. A’la reflexively feels vengeful (R) when he sees Abolqasem abuse Firoozeh, but Firoozeh reminds A’la that retaliation won’t work (U).  Then A’la, in turn, urges Abolqasem not to feel hateful (R); and seeing that the taciturn Abolqasem is very religious, he invokes religious arguments to support his pleas.  He tells Abolqasem to leave things in God’s hands –
“God knows justice better than you and me. . . . If you don’t accept my words, then you don’t truly believe in God.”
Abolqasem is silent and doesn’t argue with his petitioners; but he wants to get these people off his back, and he consults a government office as to how he can get Akbar executed soon.  The government official tells him, as Homa  Omid’s account explains above, that he will have to supply blood money to the perpetrator’s family, but this is money that the out-of-work Abolqasem doesn’t have.

Then a new wrinkle appears when Firoozeh and A’la meet Abolqasem’s wife.  This woman is Abolqasem’s second wife, his first wife, who was the mother of the murdered Maliheh, having passed away some time ago.  The present wife has a seriously disabled teenage daughter, Somayeh, from an earlier marriage of her own, and she thinks she can convince Abolqasem to consent to forgiveness if Firoozeh can pay them 3-4 million tomans (~US 5,000) for a needed medical operation for her crippled daughter.  However, this is money that neither Firoozeh nor A’la have.

So now we have a number of attitudes expressed.  Abolqasem feels vengeful (R); Ghafoori, A’la, and Firoozeh feel compassion for Akbar (C); and Abolqasem’s wife feels compassion for her daughter (C,U) and some compassion for Akbar (C).      

A’la and Firoozeh approach the mullah at the local mosque that Abolqasem attends, and he agrees to remind Abolqasem that God is always the most merciful and compassionate.  But the mullah’s words fall on Abolqasem’s deaf ears, as the vengeful man goes about trying to get support from others for his required blood money.  In fact he tells the mullah that if God wants him to forgive, then he has a problem with God.

Meanwhile A’la and Firoozeh keep up their low-pressure entreaties to Abolqasem.  And in the process, as A’la and Firoozeh become more familiar with each other, they begin to feel a growing mutual attraction (L?).  Their growing enamoredness is one of the best features of the film, because it comes off in a subtle and natural way.  Indeed A’la and Firoozeh are not really a natural match when they learn more about each other.  A’la is three or four years younger than Firoozeh, is unemployed, and has spent seven years in prison.  Firoozeh is divorced from the kiosk owner, but she had to sell herself to support her junkie husband’s drug habit when they were married. And she now has a baby to look after.  But despite these facts and their various awkward missteps, the two of them gradually click.

When he hears that Abolqasem is planning to sell his home in order to get the needed blood money, A’la rushes to the mullah and asks him to intervene.  But the mullah says Abolqasem has the right to retaliation, and it is not his position to intercede.  A’la instinctively responds,
“Which right?  He wants to make his family homeless to pay for the blood money.  . . . even a 5-year-old kid knows which is better.”
A’la then tells Firoozeh that he wants to steal enough money to pay for the blood money (he claims he is an expert thief), but she adamantly refuses his offer.  She doesn’t want him to go to jail again, and for her that’s not the proper direction to take.

Eventually Abolqasem’s wife comes up with another plan.  If A’la will agree to marry her crippled and homely daughter, Somayeh, then the wife can definitely get Abolqasem to sign the consent letter saving Akbar’s life.  This is the film’s final dilemma.  C, U, and L (Compassion, Utility, and Love) all point in different directions here, and religious counsel hasn’t helped, either. 

A’la rushes to the hospital where Firoozeh works and asks from outside the fence what he should do.  But Firoozeh doesn’t know what to tell him.  A’la insists he would do it (marry Somayeh) for Firoozeh’s sake, i.e. not for utilitarian or compassionate reasons, but because he loves Firoozeh.  But Firoozeh frowns and tells him that because she is 3-4 years older and with a child, she’s no good for him.  Then they have the following exchange:
Firoozeh: “Don’t think that because I paid attention to you for one or two days, it was out of love.”

A’la: “You’re lying!”

Firoozeh: “Don’t count on me.”
A’la then goes to Ghafoori for advice. Ghafoori advocates a utilitarian decision – forget about Akbar (C) and Firoozeh (L) and move on.   But A’la says he cannot ever forget about Firoozeh and is convinced that she really loves him, too.  For him this is true love.  Ghafoori then concedes that true love can be overwhelming and dominate all other considerations – A’la will have to make his own decision.

With the sympathetic Ghafoori watching from a distance, A’la returns to Firoozeh’s home to speak to her again.  But she is not answering the door bell as the film ends.


The production values of Beautiful City are excellent throughout.  Particularly effective is the camera work, which is devoid of the shaky hand-held camera operations that wold infect some of Farhadi’s later films.  The acting and editing, too, which maintain a smooth rhythm across the various reaction shots of the troubled characters, are also very good. In fact, all the characters are sympathetically portrayed, and the viewer can empathize with their feelings.  It is just that those feelings point in different, perhaps irreconcilable, directions.

Overall, I would say this is one of Farhadi’s best films, and it deserves more exposure. Like some of Farhadi’s subsequent films, the viewer is left without knowing the final resolution, but with something to contemplate. 

What do you think A’la will do in the end?  What would you do?
★★

Notes:
  1. Parisa Vaziri, “BEAUTIFUL CITY”, Film-forward.com, (15 March 2006).   
  2. Ken Fox, “Beautiful City”, TV Guide (n.d.).  
  3. Homa Omid (Haleh Afshar), Islam and the Post-Revolutionary State in Iran, Palgrave Macmillan (1994), p. 182.   

"Taxi" - Jafar Panahi (2015)

Famed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s difficult circumstances are mostly well known.  Following the notorious Iranian 2009 Presidential elections, when the government violently suppressed the progressive Green Movement’s protests concerning election rigging, Panahi, a Green supporter, was arrested and ultimately sentenced to six-years in prison, banned for 20 years from any filmmaking activities, and barred from leaving the country.  Although the six-year prison sentence is still hanging over his head and Panahi is closely watched by the government authorities, he has somehow managed to clandestinely (and clearly illegally) make and distribute three films in the succeeding years – This is Not a Film (In Film Nist, 2011), Closed Curtain (Pardé, 2013), and the film under review here: Taxi (Taxi Tehran, 2015).

All three of those films offer film narrative perspectives on personal confinement, but Taxi also sheds light on the larger social world we live in.  In the film, Panahi is a taxi driver on the streets of Tehran and gives rides to an assortment of clients that he picks up.  Everything in the film is seen from the perspective of cameras inside the taxi, both dashboard-mounted cameras and the mobile-phone cameras of some of the people inside. And all the shooting and editing of the film was accomplished in a scant fifteen days [1].  Despite these severe shooting restrictions, the film was smuggled outside of Iran and, remarkably, won the Golden Bear at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival [2].

Note that the shooting of a film entirely inside a taxi had been done before with Abbas Kiastomi’s 10 (Dah, 2002).  But Kiarostami’s film is a staged theatrical production, while Panahi’s Taxi is essentially a documentary film.  Indeed, Taxi has the look and feel of a cinéma vérité documentary, with a seemingly random stream of passengers getting rides in Panahi’s taxi and venting their petty concerns.  But there is more here than at first meets the eye. Iranian cinema has a history of mixing documentary realism with theatrically staged scenes, as can be seen in Kiarostami’s Close-Up (Nema-ye Nazdik, 1990), Panahi’s own The Mirror (Ayneh, 1997), and Madsen’s Sepideh - Reaching for the Stars (2013).  So the wall between objectivity and contrivance is sometimes obscure in this tradition in order to portray some desired intrinsic truth; and so, it seems, this is what happens in Taxi, too [3].  Panahi, as is his custom, avoids diatribes or disquisitions and lets his passengers do all the talking – he, himself, is primarily a listener and says very little.  But these passengers gradually, and in their own words, give us a picture of contemporary Iranian society and to some extent the degree to which the government is suppressing basic freedoms [4,5]. 

In order to fully appreciate Taxi, it helps to have an understanding of Tehran’s taxi culture.  With its huge population and limited public transportation, people in Tehran have for more than forty years relied heavily on hailing a “private taxi” (mashin-e-shakhsi) to get around.  A mashin-e-shakhsi is essentially a private car that is operated by its owner as a taxi cab. For years it has served as an open employment opportunity for men who are willing to put in the gruelling effort to make a go of it.  These cars do not have meters, and gradually over the years, a whole scheme of shared norms has arisen as to what fares to charge customers.  In general the fare prices are relatively inexpensive, and people do not argue much concerning what to pay anyway.  For efficiency and to keep fares low, taxis will often fill up their available seats with other passengers who may be travelling in the same general direction. 

In order to hail a mashin-e-shakhsi, one stands on the curb, and when a car slows down and stops for you, you need to call out your destination.  If the destination is roughly in the direction where the taxi is headed, the driver will likely tell you to get in, even if there are already passengers seated in the cab.  To be a smart taxi hailer, it is best to call out the name of a well-known building or intersection towards which taxis are likely to be headed.  If you have a long or complicated route to take, it may be necessary to take several such taxis, each of which is willing to take you part of the way towards your destination.  All of this may sound like modern ride-sharing schemes, but the Iranian version of it emerged long before the cell-phone-driven systems around today.

Inside these shared taxis, there is an interesting “social space” in which the passengers seem to feel some fleeting moments of confidentiality that are free from the restrictive conditions of the public space [6].  Iranians tend to be surprisingly friendly and open to strangers, anyway, and when they meet momentarily in these taxis, they often express their thoughts openly to each other.  This includes interactions between previously unacquainted men and women, which would be more restricted on the street. So there is almost a special mini-culture of open discussion in these shared taxis, and this is what Panahi has tapped into in this film.

The film opens with no titles or credits; Panahi wanted to protect his collaborators by keeping their names secret. Instead it starts with a shot of more than two minutes with no dialogue and a static frame, looking out the front window of the presumed taxi onto the busy Tehran street.  The first 73 seconds of this shot are static, and then the vehicle begins moving forward through the traffic.  This puts the viewer into a mood of watchful awareness as the taxi cruises along looking for customers.  As the film progresses, Panahi’s taxi has seven “fares” – a person or group of persons that get in the taxi and talk to Panahi.  Most of these fares are linked to particular Iranian social issues that Panahi shows us.  Although these fares sometimes overlap and are not all perfectly sequential, I will discuss them separately.

1.  The Man and the Woman
The first encounter is when the taxi picks up a man and then a woman who are headed in a similar direction.  Inside the cab they begin chatting and soon they are arguing over how thieves should be punished.  The man, who later suggests he is a hired mugger, thinks the regime should hang some criminals in accordance with Sharia law.  This, he says, would scare the population into lawful behavior.  The woman shows more compassion and says the government should address the root causes of extreme poverty that can lead to thievery.

➔ Social issue: the rule of law, wealth inequality.

2.  The DVD Seller

Panahi then picks up a diminutive DVD seller, Omid, who specializes in privately selling contraband videos. His short stature and enterprising attitude remind me of the similar media seller in Mohammad Rasoulof’s Head Wind (Baad-e-Daboor, 2008). Omid in this film sells popular international movies that have been prohibited by the government, and he can even get hold of some pirated movies before they have been released to the public.  As he reminds Panahi, whom he recognizes as a well-known director, they are both in the business of furthering Iranian culture.

➔ Social issue: human rights: freedom of expression

3.  The Accident Couple
Panahi has to stop to take a man who has been seriously injured in a motorcycle accident to the  hospital emergency room.  His wife, who had also been riding with him, accompanies him.  Thinking that he is dying, the injured man wants to have his last will and testament recorded on someone’s cell phone so that he can leave his possessions to his wife.  According to existing law, his brothers would get everything, and his wife would get almost nothing.  Only an explicit will could ensure that his wife would inherit the family possessions.

➔ Social issue: human rights and the rule of law

4.  Women with Goldfish
The next passengers are two middle-aged women with a goldfish bowl containing two goldfish.  They superstitiously believe that their lives depend on their releasing the fish into Ali’s Spring in South Tehran before noon of that day.  These woman may have just been examples of the kind of eccentric riders taxi drivers may encounter, but I didn’t see much of a social issue associated with this fare.

5.  Hana
Panahi has to pick up his cheeky 11-year-old niece, Hana, at school and take her home.  Along the way she tells him about her school assignment to make a short movie with her cell phone camera.  Her teacher has ordered that the student films should be “distributable”, i.e. in accordance with the regime’s restrictions on movie making.  According to these rules, the students have been told to
  • respect the Islamic headscarf
  • allow no contact between men and women
  • avoid sordid realism
  • avoid violence
  • avoid the use of a necktie for good guys
  • avoid the use of Iranian names for good guys.  Instead they should use the sacred names of Islamic saints.
  • avoid discussion of political and economic issues.
Of course Panahi is familiar with these rules, but he gets Hana to naively talk about them in this film.

➔ Social issue: human rights: freedom of expression

6.  Arash
Panahi meets with his former neighbor, Arash, who wants to share with Panahi some CCTV footage of Arash being mugged and robbed by thugs.  Although Arash wants to share the footage, he doesn’t want to have these particularly thieves (who were masked and hence unidentified) prosecuted.  This was because Arash recognized his assailants and fears that if they were to be prosecuted, they would be executed.

➔ Social issue: the rule of law, wealth inequality.

7.  The Flower Lady.
Panahi’s final fare is referred to as the “Flower Lady”, because she is selling roses on the street.  But she is recognisable as an old friend of Panahi’s, the famous human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh.  Sotoudeh, who is shown here to be remarkably cheerful, is on her way to visit Ghoncheh Ghavami, a young woman who has been imprisoned for merely seeking entry to watch a men’s volleyball game.  As Sotoudeh reminds us, this is a situation that Panahi had treated in his earlier film, Offside (2006) [7].

Sotoudeh informs Panahi that Ms. Ghavami had begun a hunger strike after being held in solitary confinement for 100 days.  And as Sotoudeh reminds Panahi (and informs the viewer), they have both, themselves, resorted to hunger strikes to nonviolently protest their cruel treatment while they were unjustly held in prison.  The Center for Human Rights in Iran offers more background on Nasrin Sotoudeh [8]:
Sotoudeh was arrested in September 2010 and subsequently sentenced to 11 years in prison, later reduced on appeal to six years, and a ten-year ban on her legal practice, on charges of “acting against national security, collusion and propaganda against the regime, and membership in the Defenders of Human Rights Center.” Her prosecution followed her work defending victims of human rights violations in Iran, and she spent three years in prison, at times in solitary confinement, until her release in September 2013.
Sotoudeh and Panahi also refer to the lingering paranoia associated with possibly recognizing the voice of their “interrogator”.  This is a reference to the fact that when they were arrested, they were interrogated while blindfolded.  They never saw their interrogators, but the remembered voices have left a lasting stress on them.  As Sotoudeh remarks about their acquired fear of never ending surveillance and the extent to which this, itself, is a form of government instrumented terrorism:
“Sometimes they do it [leave clues of their presence] on purpose so we know they’re watching us.  Such obvious tactics. First they mount a political case. You’re an agent for Mossad, the CIA, MI5. They beef it up with a morality charge. They make your life hell. When you finally get released, the outside world becomes a bigger cell. They make your best friends your worst enemies.”
➔ Social issue: human rights and the rule of law

After dropping off Nasrin Sotoudeh, Panahi goes to Ali’s Spring to find the goldfish bowl lady who had left her purse in his car.  The closing shot of the film, which lasts 4:38, shows Panahi and Hana leaving the taxi to look for the lady, after which a presumed Basiji thug (a paramilitary arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards) approaches the empty cab. He gains entry and wrecks the dashboard camera, but he can’t find the crucial flash drive with the recorded camera footage.  Panahi had apparently prudently taken the flash drive with him.


Note that the social issues associated with these fares all relate to the topic of RMDL which I have discussed elsewhere [9].  RMDL is an acronym standing for
  • (Human) Rights. These include freedom of speech and the freedom to watch and listen (essentially freedom of assembly). These are fundamental forms of interaction that must be guaranteed and allowed to flourish. Those who are imprisoned merely for their conscientiously held beliefs become prisoners of conscience.
     
  • Markets.  There needs to be regulated exchange markets that allow the open exchange of goods across society.  This includes the necessity of ensuring sufficient wealth equality across society so that there can be widespread, fair exchange of goods and services.
     
  • Democracy.  Some form of democracy involving broadly inclusive enfranchisement needs to be in place.
     
  • Rule of Law.  There needs to be a written set of laws that are made known to everyone and that can be changed by actions of the democratically-elected legislature. The laws provide regulation of the various interactions in the interests of the public good.
Iran has severe problems with all four of these RMDL categories, and hopefully the efforts of people like Jafar Panahi and Nasrin Sotoudeh will ultimately help to make things better.

It is difficult to discern how much of Taxi is staged, but the situations and issues depicted are real.  And they are ongoing.  Subsequent to the film’s release, Nasrin Sotoudeh was again summoned to appear before the Tehran Revolutionary Court in September 2016 to face unspecified charges [8]. 

When Hana had inquired of her schoolteacher what was meant to “avoid sordid realism”, she was told to show the real, but not the “real real”.  If reality is dark and unpleasant, then one shouldn’t show it.  What Panahi has managed to do in Taxi is to show the “real real” but not in a dark and unpleasant fashion.  He has shown the cordial and hospitable Iranian people trying to cope with their RMDL deficiencies in positive ways.
★★★½

Notes:
  1. David Sexton, “Taxi Tehran, film review: enchanting film-making”, Evening Standard, (30 October 2015).  
  2. Murtaza Ali Khan, “Banned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi's Taxi wins the Golden Bear at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival", A Potpourri of Vestiges, (15 February 2015).    
  3. Jugu Abraham, “194. Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s Farsi/Persian language film 'Taxi' (2015), based on his own original screenplay: Very interesting subject but intriguing cinematic docu-fiction.”, Movies that make you think, (19 June 2016).   
  4. Jamsheed Akrami, "The Art of Defiance", Taxi DVD, Kino Lorber, (2015).  
  5. A. O. Scott, “Review: In ‘Taxi,’ a Filmmaker Pushes Against Iranian Censorship From Behind the Wheel”, The New York Times, (1 October 2015).  
  6. The interestingly severe contrast between the Iranian public space and private space, and the traditional hands-off attitude of the authorities with respect to the private space, has been described in Hooman Majd’s recent book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, Anchor, (2009).
  7. There are other references to Panahi’s films in this work.   Omid makes a comment about Crimson Gold (2003) and Hana makes a reference to The Mirror (1997).
  8. “Nasrin Sotoudeh: ‘Hardliners are trying to open a new case against me’”, Center for Human Rights in Iran, (22 August 2016).   
  9. See my reviews of Mohammad Rasoulof’s Head Wind (2008) and Manuscripts Don’t Burn (2013), Satyajit Ray’s An Enemy of the People (Ganashatru, 1989), Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012), and Michael Moore’s Michael Moore in Trumpland (2016).

“Sansho the Bailiff” - Kenji Mizoguchi (1954)

In the early 1950s the great writer-director Kenji Mizoguchi converted to Buddhism and then made three successive critically acclaimed masterpieces – Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954) – as artistic embodiments of his deep spiritual feelings.  Although all three films portray human life as often outwardly tragic but inwardly capable of grace, the greatest, and saddest, of Mizoguchi’s offerings on this score is the last one, Sansho the Bailiff (Sanshô Dayû).  As such, it is one of the greatest films ever made, which is reflected in its ranking 59th on the 2012 British Film Institute poll of international critics for the “Greatest Films of All Time” [1].

The script is based on a famous story of the same name by Ogai Mori (1915), which itself was based on a well-known, centuries-old Japanese folk tale.  However, Mizoguchi, together with his script writers Yoshikata Yoda (a perennial Mizoguchi collaborator) and Fuji Yahiro, are said to have consulted historians in order to fashion a more socially insightful narrative about Japanese traditions of slavery.  The result is a fascinating saga that features profound messages on at least two levels – both the spiritual and the political [2].  I say here, “at least”, because there is always another important level in Mizoguchi’s films: that of the social place of women in Japanese society, a perpetual concern of Mizoguchi’s that stems from his own difficult upbringing [3].

The overall story is set in 11th century Japan during the Heian Period and concerns the hardships and misfortunes suffered by the family of a principled provincial governor after he was expelled and exiled by a warlord for his generous behavior towards his subjects.  What makes this tale fascinating is the moody, almost dirge-like, tenor of the telling as we follow the tortuous and ill-fated paths of the main characters [4].  Mizoguchi mixes together all aspects of cinematic storytelling into his mise-en-scene in order to create this moody effect.  And yet the film’s narrative is not just a one-dimensional horror story, but, on the contrary, is imbued with a realistic flavor that fully engages the viewer.  This is because of the way Mizoguchi’s cinematics visually embed his characters into the physical contexts of his scenes.  In this connection, I revisit what I said about Mizoguchi’s style in my review of Ugetsu [5]:
“For Mizoguchi – as it also was for one of his admirers, Michelangelo Antonioni – the action of a film is so fully situated in its exterior context that we can almost consider that exterior environment to be another participating agent to what transpires in the scene.  Or, looking at it from another angle, we can say that the actors shown are all basically integral aspects of that imposing environmental context.  Mizoguchi accomplishes these effects by employing lengthy and artfully composed moving camera shots that follow the actors as they move about in the carefully fashioned environment.  Often over the lengths of these shots, the movement of the characters is managed so as to maintain a balanced visual composition. 

In particular in Ugetsu, there is a feeling of the characters almost being captive victims of their environments.  This is achieved by the extensive use of elevated camera angles looking down on the events depicted.”
This is also true in Sansho the Bailiff, where a large number of elevated, high-angle shots look  down on the action to situate the characters and lock them into their environmental contexts.  As such, it offers an unconscious visual reminder that we are never as free as we think we are. 

Note that Mizoguchi’s embedding characters into the environment is not quite the same thing as what we would normally call expressionism.  Expressionism usually presents an environment that reflects the emotional state of the narrator.  It is very subjective and affecting. But Mizoguchi’s visual world is not so clearly subjective, and what it offers is a complex web of people and context that is a bit more detached.  This comes about due to the relative paucity of closeups and point-of-view shots in Mizoguchi’s camera settings.

Sansho the Bailiff’s narrative passes through five phases.  Throughout this tale there are emphatic events of cruelty, which are not presented so much as individual acts on the part of evil characters, but as indications of the way the society normally operates. This is simply the brutal patriarchal world in which they all live.  I will label these cruelty moments in the story with “(Cr)”.

1.  The Taira Family on the Way to Tsukushi

The film begins with exiled governor Masauji Taira’s family traveling by foot to visit him, whom they haven’t seen in six years.  The traveling party consists of his wife, Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), his 13-year-old son Zushiô, his 8-year-old daughter Anju, and the elderly family maid Ubatake.  Note that Kinuyo Tanaka was very regularly the star performer in Mizoguchi’s later films, and she came to symbolize  Mizoguchi’s nuanced portrayals of womanhood in Japan.  She also starred in Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night (1948), The Lady of Musashino (1951), Life of Oharu (1952), and Ugetsu (1953), and accordingly their joint creation of a romantic image of feminine sensitivity has been compared to that of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich.

During their journey, Tamaki has flashback memories of when she last saw her husband six years earlier.  Masauji (played by Masao Shimizu) had resisted a military general’s call for higher taxes on rice and for peasants to be conscripted into the army.  For this Masauji was removed from office and exiled to Tsukushi.  Prior to his departure a large group of peasants noisily protest at the government in  support of Masauji, which provokes the general to order that all the protesters be killed (Cr).

When Masauji last bid farewell to his family (his family were instructed to go live with Tamaki’s brother in Iwashiro), he told his son Zushiô that whatever happens, he should always remember his fundamental maxims:
    Without mercy man is like a beast. 
    Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others. 
    Men are created equal.
    Everyone is entitled to their happiness.
Then he gave Zushiô his precious amulet of Kwannon (Guanyin), the Mahayana Buddhist “Goddess of Mercy”.  This image of universal compassion and mercy was Mizoguchi’s important addition to this story.

Returning from the flashback, Tamaki continues leading her children on their journey, and there is a memorably atmospheric 64-second shot of them making their way through a meadow of tall reeds.  Eventually they have to camp outside for the night even though they have been warned about bandits and slave traders in the area. 

A seemingly kindly priestess visits their camp and offers them shelter and arrangements to shorten their journey to Tsukushi by taking a boat. But this turns out to be treachery, as the boaters kidnap the family and drown the servant Ubatake (Cr). Tamaki is forcibly taken to the island of Sado to be a prostitute, and the two children are taken to town to be sold as slaves.

2.  Zushiô and Anju in the Town
Zushiô and Anju are now sold to Sansho the Bailiff (Eitarô Shindô), who ruthlessly operates a large estate owned by the Minister of the Right.  Sansho’s brutal administration is much appreciated by the central government, whose visiting official praises Sansho for his ability to extract taxes from the poor people. We see how he operates when a female slave, Namiji (Kimiko Tachibana), is mistakenly accused of trying to run away, and Sansho personally and excruciatingly brands the poor screaming woman on the forehead with a molten cattle brand (Cr).  Sansho’s son, Taro (Akitake Kôno), silently watches this barbarity in disgust and decides to befriend the new young slaves, Zushiô and Anju.  He gives them new names and urges them to escape the compound when they grow older.  Then he departs the estate, himself, to pursue his own course.

3.  Ten Years Later

Zushiô (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and Anju (Kyôko Kagawa) are now ten years older but still slaves. Zushiô, who has become a hardened opportunist and has forgotten his father’s maxims, figures his best course of action is to loyally serve Sansho – he is shown now willingly cattle-branding a poor suffering 70-year-old slave for some minor offence (Cr). 

Anju overhears a newly arrived slave singing a sad lament that features the names of her and her  brother [6]:
    Zushiô, how I long for you.
    Isn’t life torture?
    Anju, how I long for you.
    Isn’t life torture?
    So miserable as I am sold away.
    Boatmen quietly row away.
When she asks the girl where the song comes from, she is told that it was the song of a courtesan on Sado named Nakagimi.

Meanwhile Tamaki (apparently renamed Nakagimi) is shown desperately trying to escape from the island.  As punishment for such insolence, her master orders that her Achilles’s tendons be cut, leaving her a cripple (Cr). 

Back in Sansho’s estate, Zushiô and Anju are ordered to take their friend, the ill slave Namiji, up to a mountain and leave her there to die (Cr).  Anju sees this rare opportunity to go outside the estate’s walls as a chance for the two of them to escape.  She convinces her hitherto cynical and reluctant brother to run away and carry Namiji on his back, while she stalls their overseers.  Before Zushiô rushes off, she gives him back the Kwannon amulet that he had discarded.

When Sansho hears about Zushiô’s escape, he orders Anju to be tortured to reveal where Zushiô went (Cr), but the young woman has a plan for that eventuality.  Knowing that she will not be able to withstand Sansho’s torture, she commits suicide first, by drowning herself in a nearby lake.

Zushiô makes it to a nearby Buddhist temple, where Sansho’s son Taro is now a monk.  Taro shelters them and revives Namiji with medicine.  When Zushiô tells Taro that he wants to go to the capital Kyoto to reveal the inhuman conditions at Sansho’s estate, Taro tell him that he, too, once wanted to change the world, but he became disillusioned when he saw how thoroughly selfish and corrupt the world is.   It is better to withdraw and become a monk, he tells Zushiô.

But Zushiô, who is now a changed man and is once again inspired by is father’s maxims and Kwannon’s message of compassion,  is not to be dissuaded and rushes off alone to Kyoto.

4. Zushiô’s Public Mission
When Zushiô arrives in Kyoto and approaches the governmental Chief Advisor, he is immediately imprisoned as a nuisance.  But the Chief Advisor, a powerful but humane man, recognizes Zushiô’s Kwannon amulet as a valuable icon once belonging to his own family that was given to the Taira family.  He has Zushiô released, because he must be the son of Masauji Taira.  Since Zushiô is now recognized as a noble, the Chief Advisor appoints him to be the governor of Tango, the province where Sansho the Bailiff’s estate happens to be located.  Zushiô immediately expresses his mission to the Chief Advisor: to abolish slavery in his new domain. The Chief Advisor (and later, in an expressive 84-second shot, Zushiô’s new judicial minister), warns him that his decree of slavery abolition will not be enforceable on government-owned estates, such as that run by Sansho. But Zushiô is adamant to go ahead with it.

Zushiô also sadly learns that his father recently passed away, and before leaving for Tango, he makes a respectful visit to his father’s grave.  There he is further inspired along his virtuous path by hearing that Masauji Taira was widely known to be kind to everyone he met, especially to unfortunate peasants, whom he taught to read and write. 

When Zushiô arrives in Tango, he immediately announces his decree and has public signs posted to its effect, much to the jubilation of the slaves and the consternation of the slaveholding masters.  When Sansho orders his men to destroy the public signs, Zushiô is able to execute his authority to have Sansho arrested for destroying government property.  Sansho and his family are quickly exiled.

5. Zushiô’s Personal Mission
After learning of Anju’s sacrificial death and watching the newly liberated and unruly peasants sack and burn Sansho’s palace, Zushiô knows that a long-term role inside the oppressive and exploitative governmental administration is not the place for him.  He has managed to place his stake in the ground for the rights of man (slavery was finally officially abolished in Japan in 1590) and accomplished what he had set out to do, but now he resigns from his high position.  His path must lie in a more humble and Kwannon-inspired direction.

He goes to Sado in search of his mother, and after some wrong turns (including an adroit 82-second shot of his interaction with a false “Nakagimi”)  eventually finds the now enfeebled and nearly blind Tamaki lying on the beach and singing her lamenting song about her lost children.  The final eight minutes of the film show their heartrending reunion.  He tearfully informs her that Masauji and Anju have passed away, and then begs her forgiveness for having resigned his governorship in order to be true to his father’s teachings.  She assures him that she knows he has followed his father’s teaching, and that is why they have been able to meet again.


The ending of Sansho the Bailiff is funereal but still one of the most moving closures in film history.  What has been achieved is not justice, revenge, or fulfillment.  Instead, one is overwhelmed with the sense of total compassion that Guanyin/Kwannon summons in us and, like love itself, cannot be accounted for by our present-day objectivist scientific theories. 

There is also, as I mentioned above, a political theme to this film, as well.  In the aftermath of a devastating war, Japanese society and culture was still at this time reconsidering its traditional authoritarian structure, which is a foundation for laudable discipline but can also be unmindful of human feelings and aspirations.  Masauji Taira’s maxims in fact remind us of the US Declaration of Independence, which asserts,
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Happiness is not guaranteed in this reckoning, but the freedom to pursue happiness is seen as an unalienable human right. Ultimately, this idea of the universal rights of men and women is something that has emerged worldwide from our rational thinking and from the inner recognition of our human feelings for compassion.  Regrettably, these notions of humanity are still politically under threat today from people who are little different from Sansho the Bailiff.  This film reminds us that our modern political notions of human fairness for the common good are ultimately founded on out attendance to the human heart.

Overall, however, the film has a more profound focus than the political.  It’s compass covers all of human existence, including the spiritual level.  Mizoguchi’s mise-en-scene has integrated the entire world into a revelation of how compassion underlies our truly human being.  Crucial to this is the cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa, who during is career also worked with Kurosawa and Ozu. It is said that Miyagawa was given considerable freedom to devise his own shots during the filming [7].  Also essential is the hauntingly moody music of Fumio Hayasaka.  Everything in this film’s winding path lead to that soul-wrenching final scene when our hearts are exposed and we are rededicated to the magic of compassion-filled existence.  This, it is important to note, does not mean withdrawal in the fashion of Taro’s renunciation of the external world, but compassion-filled engagement with everyone one meets – in the fashion of first Masauji and at the end Zushiô.
★★★★

Notes:
  1.  “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).  
  2. Mark Le Fanu, Sansho the Bailiff: The Lessons of Sansho”, The Criterion Collection, (27 February 2013). 
  3. David Williams, “Kenji Misoguchi, Sansho the Baliff/Sanshô Dayû”, (XV:5), Goldenrod Handouts, Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), Buffalo Film Seminars, The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (25 September 2007), (selection from World Film Directors, John Wakeman (ed.), The H.W. Wilson Co., NY, (1987)). 
  4. Michael Sragow, “Sansho the Bailiff”, The Criterion Collection, (23 October 1994).  
  5. The Film Sufi, “”Ugetsu” - Kenji Mizoguchi (1953)", The Film Sufi, (31 January 2016).   
  6. J. Thomas Rimer’s 1977 translation of Ogai Mori’s story that is included in the Criterion Collection DVD of the film, has the following lyrics for this song:     

            My Anju, I yearn for you.
                     Fly away!
            My Zushiô, I yearn for you.
                     Fly away!
            Living birds, if you are living still,
                     Fly, fly far away!
            I will not chase you.
     
  7. Tadao Sato, “Simplicity”, Sansho the Bailiff (DVD), The Criterion Collection (2013).

Sergei Eisenstein

The Films of Sergei Eisenstein: