“Once Upon a Time in the West” - Sergio Leone (1968)

After rounding out his famous “Dollars”,  (aka “Man With No Name”) trilogy – A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, (1966) – Sergio Leone’s intention was to move on from Westerns to other forms. However, American production companies only wanted to fund another “Spaghetti Western”.  So Leone set about erecting his epic commemoration of the Old West narrative: Once Upon a Time in the West (C’era una Volta il West, 1968). 

The film was constructed to go beyond even the grandiosity of Leone’s big box-office hit, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  But when it was released, critics and the public alike found Once Upon a Time in the West to be confusing and ponderous. The film bombed at the American box office.  Over time, however, the film’s reputation has grown, and it is now considered by many people to be Leone’s masterpiece. 

In my view the film does have some serious flaws, but those are outweighed by the work’s considerable virtues.  Curiously, one could say that the sum of the film’s many wondrous parts amounts to greater than its whole.  In many ways, nevertheless, as I will try to explain, the film stands as a unique monument of cinematic expression.  One of Leone’s problems with the critics was that, like Alfred Hitchcock, he was sometimes dismissed as a hack showman who lacked artistic talent and subtlety. That was because Leone’s dramatic deployment of visual compositions and sounds was so emphatic and absorbing that the viewer felt overwhelmed.  Anyway, specific artistic accreditation is not the focus here; this cinematic work was the collaborative product of numerous talents.
  • The script was based on a commissioned story by Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argeneto, two young film writers who would go on to have considerable success of their own.  Bertolucci, then still only in his twenties, was an established film director even then, having already made La Commare Secca (The Grip Reaper, 1962) and Prima Della Rivoluzione (Before the Revolution, 1964). 
  • From that story the screenplay was written by Leone and Sergio Donati.
  • The breathtaking cinematography was handled by Tonino Delli Colli, who besides working on Leone’s films, also handled the cinematography for films directed by Roman Polanski, Louis Malle, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Federico Fellini
  • The music, always a crucial element to Leone’s films, was once again composed by Leone’s friend and former classmate, Ennio Morricone. 
The resulting tale that these creative talents put together concerns the fates of four principal characters who have distinct personality types that represent almost archetypal narrative character attitudes:

  • Harmonica (played by Charles Bronson)  is the iconic, taciturn, and mysterious “Man With No Name” in this story and is only identified by his frequent harmonica playing.  Indeed the original Man With No Name role in the Dollars trilogy had been offered to and rejected by Bronson before it was taken by Clint Eastwood.  But in some ways Bronson is the truly perfect embodiment of this character.  As a character type in the story he is the Relentless Avenger.
  • Frank (Henry Fonda) is the epitome of cruelty and evil, the Sadistic Narcissist. Casting Fonda, whose entire career was spent playing upright and morally self-assured characters, in this dark role was a stroke of genius.
  • Cheyenne (Jason Robards, Jr.) is an outlaw who becomes entangled in the story against his will.  As the Reflective Outsider, he offers assessments as to what is going on.  Another case of interesting casting, Robards’s raspy voice reinforces his commentary.
  • Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) is the Pragmatic Cooperator. The inclusion of her role added depth and humanity to Leone’s story. 
The story itself has several concurrent threads and is sometimes obscure, partly because significant information is withheld from the viewer for the narrative purposes of slow disclosure.  In fact the narrative comprises a set of discrete scenes, most of which can stand on their own as fascinating and memorable mini-narratives.  Perhaps the best of such is the opening scene at the railway station.
1.  The Killings
The unforgettable opening scene of about 12 minutes, which is shown while the film’s title and opening credits roll across the screen, offers an extremely slow and deliberate buildup of tension.  Three armed men with murderous intent are waiting for a train to arrive at a remote railway station in Arizona.  The train arrives and a lone passenger, Harmonica, gets off looking for someone named Frank. There is a deadly shootout that results in the deaths of the three gunmen, but no motivations are given for what has happened.

The action cuts to another setting, a homestead where a widowed father, Brett McBain (Frank Wolff), is preparing for his wedding party with his three children.  Frank suddenly arrives with some companions and, with a sadistic smile on his face, cruelly murders the defenseless family.  Again, no reason is given.

Jill McBain, the new second wife of the father just killed, arrives by train in Flagstone and arranges to travel by horse and buggy to the McBain homestead, known as “Sweetwater”.  On the way there, as her buggy is shown passing through Monument Valley in Arizona [1], her driver stops at a way station saloon which at that moment is also visited by Cheyenne, an outlaw gangster who has just escaped from jail.  Harmonica is there, too, and accuses Cheyenne’s men of being behind the assassination attempt on his life in the opening scene, because those men wore the long duster coats characteristic of Cheyenne’s gang.  Jill then goes on to Sweetwater and learns that her intended family has been massacred.

At this point we are 50 minutes into the film and have been introduced to the four main characters, but they are all disconnected and there are many unanswered questions.

2.  Connections
In this section of the film a few connections between the main characters are made. Framed for the Sweetwater killings and trying to find out why, the outlaw Cheyenne goes to Sweetwater and talks to Jill.  Neither he nor Jill knows what Frank’s men were after, but we do at least learn that Cheyenne likes coffee and that Jill used to be a prostitute in New Orleans before meeting Brett McBain.  The scene cuts to an isolated railway car luxuriously outfitted to hold the mobile office of a terminally ill and crippled railway baron, Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), who is in a discussion with Frank.  The ever-westward spreading railroad line has so far only reached Flagstone (we periodically see shots of new railroad track continually being laid down by workers extending the line west of Flagstone).  In this connection Morton has hired Frank to get hold of the Sweetwater property that lies a little further to the west.  Meanwhile back at Sweetwater, Cheyenne departs, but Harmonica shows up and guns down two more of Frank’s assassins who had apparently come to kill Jill.

There are now, halfway through the film, three principal locations for further actions: the town of Flagstone, Morton’s railway car, and the Sweetwater homestead.  We still don’t know
  • why Morton and Frank are after the McBains
  • why Frank and Harmonica want to kill each other
  • what Cheyenne is doing in this story.
3.  Some Answers About Sweetwater
Separately seeking answers, Harmonica and Cheyenne sneak over to Morton’s parked railway car to spy.  Harmonica is captured by Frank, but on the urging of Morton, Frank passes up the chance to kill his mysterious nemesis and merely has him tied up while he rushes away on horseback to deal with Jill McBain, himself.  Cheyenne then makes his presence known and kills all four of Frank’s men guarding the tied-up Harmonica, whom he frees.

Back at Sweetwater, Harmonica explains the mystery of Sweetwater’s importance.  It has the only water well in a region west of the built railway, and therefore its land is a highly valuable site for a future town.

4.  The Sweetwater Auction
Meanwhile Frank captures Jill and forces her to have sex with him.  This is a further revelation of Jill’s character – she will cooperate in whatever way necessary in order to survive.  Frank forces her to sell the Sweetwater property at a rigged auction in town.  However before the final gavel comes down, Harmonica shows up (he has this practice of mysteriously showing up at critical moments) holding at gunpoint Cheyenne, whom he turns him over to the town sheriff for the reward money, which he uses to win the auction.  Cheyenne is then to be sent back on the railway to a jail in another town.

Afterwards at the town bar, Frank and Harmonica confront each other once more, but again they only exchange words, not bullets.  There is then another assassination attempt – this time on Frank by four of his own men who have been bribed by Morton to kill him. But with the unexpected help of Harmonica, Frank escapes, and his attackers are all killed. 

Frank rides out to Morton’s railway car and discovers the results of another deadly shootout: 10 more dead bodies, plus Morton, who is dying of a mortal wound, much to the grinning delight of the sadistic Frank.

5.  The Coming Together
The scene shifts back to Sweetwater, where Harmonica watches the relentless laying down of railway track that is now within sight of Jill McBain’s new train station and surrounding town under construction.  Cheyenne arrives (so we must infer, at least in the version of the film that I saw, that he somehow escaped his jailers) and has another coffee chat with Jill.

Frank arrives for what we know will be the final confrontation with Harmonica.  But again Leone draws out the scene, like that with the matador and the bull, for its full dramatic effect.  We learn at this point that Harmonica’s single-minded mission has always been to take revenge for a murder Frank committed long ago.

There are still some other narrative threads to be tied up, though.  Harmonica and then Cheyenne take their leave of Jill and head to unknown destinies.  Only afterwards do we learn that Cheyenne received a fatal wound sometime earlier, apparently at the railway car shootout mentioned in Act 4. This means that when Cheyenne was having coffee with Jill in Act 5, he was suffering from a mortal gunshot wound.

The final long shot shows Jill attending to the railway construction workers, while Harmonica departs on horseback with Cheyenne’s dead body.
Once Upon a Time in the West is a varied cinematic potpourri, with both effective and ineffective elements.  The weaknesses are mainly associated with the narrative, itself.  Certainly it lacks sufficient realism, even for a horse opera. Though we are generally willing largely to suspend our disbelief and immerse ourselves in the mythology of the Old West, some of the things depicted here are too much of a stretch even under those circumstances.  For example, Harmonica and Frank meet several times during the story, during which they could have come to their final accounting.  But instead, though we know they are bent on killing one another, they merely engage in aphoristic discourse. 

Another narrative weakness is the issue of the Cheyenne character.  Why is he so prominent in this story? Setting aside the unrealism of the extended time period during which he shows no ill effects despite suffering from the effects of a concealed mortal wound, his entire character seems to be an odd throw-in to this story.  He is a notorious outlaw who freely kills Frank’s men on occasions, and yet at other times he seems to be thoughtful and sensitive to others. 

A third weakness to the film is the insensitivity to killing (the film has a vast body count) and the celebration of vengeance as a worthy mission to undertake.  Harmonica, the presumed hero of the story, has no other interest than to satisfy his thirst for revenge.  We don’t even know why he wants revenge until the very end, but his relentless pursuit of old-fashioned “justice” is chilling.

And yet the film does have its undeniable strengths.  Leone’s magisterial cinematography is so compelling that it is an artistic end in itself.  His use of deep-focus shots in depth goes further than just about any film I have seen. And these shots don’t just stand out on their own, but are woven into a visual tapestry that fits together into a smooth-flowing dreamworld.  On top of that is Leone’s characteristic coupling of wide-view long shots and extreme close-ups. This creates a more intense and interior emotional involvement in what is being presented. 

In general, Leone understands that presence requires neighboring absence, and so sound requires closely occurring silence. Thus with respect to the temporal interweaving of effects, the use of sound in the two opening killing scenes is notable. In that wonderful first scene at the train station, the sound of the squeaky windmill and the buzzing fly portend something awful that is about to happen.  And in the second killing scene, at the McBain residence, the momentary cessation of the cricket buzzing is eerily disturbing and cause for existential alarm.

The grandest use of sound, of course, is the musical score, which drives the "inner” emotional narrative that is always under construction in the viewer’s mind.  Ennio Morricone has surpassed himself here by constructing a score that does justice to Leone’s monumental cinematography.  Each of the four main characters has a musical theme that serves as an aural motif for when he or she makes an appearance.  The way these themes are blended together during interactive scenes of the principal characters adds further to the cognitive experience. As usual with the Leone-Morricone collaboration, the score was produced before the shooting was begun so that Leone could engage in the shooting with the musical themes in his mind.  But on this occasion and since the film was, as usual, not shot with synchronous sound (all sound was dubbed in the editing phase), Leone had Morricone’s music playing on the set during the shooting.  This was used to inspire the acting performances with the operatic mood that Leone wanted to achieve.

Leone also liked to use the technique of slow disclosure to great effect.  For example, for a long time we don’t know why the McBains were murdered or why Harmonica is after Frank.  The slow disclosure of Jill’s screen entry enables the viewer to have a slowly revealed and circumspect view of her character and the Western town that she has traveled to.  These slow disclosure effects, in combination with Leone’s juxtapositions of long landscape shots with extreme close-ups, build up a pervasive sense of tension and expectation that runs throughout the film. 

Some reviewers have remarked that Once Upon a Time in the West has, more than Leone’s earlier films, characters that are deeper and that evolve during the course of the story.  I don’t think this is true.  The four main characters are types, as listed above, that don’t change much during the story.  What is unique here, though, is the fact that these principal characters spend much of their time trying to make out what makes the other main characters tick. In that sense they show some empathetic instincts that engage out attention. Like the viewers watching the film, they are all trying to figure out what is going on and why. 

So what is ultimately going on with all these characters?  Are there larger themes above that of revenge?  I would say so.  And I would say that the story is more than just a depiction of the coming of technological civilization, as symbolized by the railroad, to a barbarous territory.  All societies and civilizations have their narratives that underlie how they see themselves.  The Old West had its own narratives, too, about integrity and manhood, toughness and independence.  This film presumes that the viewer from the outset is very familiar with that Old West mythology, and this is supplemented by the inclusion of a number of familiar Hollywood images  (e.g. Monument Valley) and character actors, including Jack Elam, Keenan Wynn, Woody Strode, and Lionel Stander. In this connection the film often invokes, and sometimes inverts, some of the classic Old Western film themes from American cinema, as typified by the productions of John Ford.

In particular, Frank represents the ultimate narcissistic adulteration of these characteristics – a representation of how simple Old West norms can be perverted in the direction of nihilistic perfidy. Jill, on the other hand, represents compassion, compromise, and working for a communal harmony.  The fact that Leone had this character played by the extraordinarily beautiful Claudia Cardinale (to me, the most beautiful of all screen actresses) is an indication that this was the real hero (heroine) of his story.  She is not just a passively pretty image; instead her soulful, expressive eyes and her graceful physical movements indicate that she wants to be compassionately involved with those around her.  Her character does not force a programmatic scheme of how to act on others; instead she is willing to compromise and make the best of any situation. 

This suggests to me that an underlying theme of this film is that American promotion of simplistic and self-righteous independence (and hence selfishness), as exemplified by the Old West mythology, was passing away.  It was time for a new cooperative sense of humanism to take its place. In that sense we can see Once Upon a Time in the West for the masterfully expressionistic elegy for the overdue passing of the Old West narrative that it really is.

  1. Most of the film was shot in Spain, but there was some exterior shooting done in Arizona.

"No One Knows About Persian Cats" - Bahman Ghobadi (2009)

When I first heard about Bahman Ghobadi’s No One Knows About Persian Cats (Kasi az Gorbehaye Irani Khabar Nadareh, 2009), I understood it to be a musical tour through the underground pop music scene in contemporary Tehran – difficult to make, of course, but not an extraordinary piece of cinema. But actually the film turned out to be much more than that. This film, which received “Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize Ex-aequo” at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, is a one-of-a-kind examination of youthful creativity that deserves to become a classic.  Shot on the fly and on the run in 17 sessions and without the official permit required by the government, Ghobadi and his crew have managed to put together not just an investigation into a suppressed aspect of modern Iranian culture, but more than that, a multi-layered narrative about the universal drive to express deep feelings through poetry and music – something for which Iranians have always had a passion.

A unique aspect of this film concerns its classification – is it a documentary film or a theatrical fiction film?  In some ways it belongs to both classes. There is definitely a story here – it concerns two young Iranian musicians who are attempting to get the means and permissions to leave the country and go to perform in London. But the people in this film (except for one character) are playing themselves.  Documentary films, of course, are supposed to capture “reality” and document it; they are not supposed to be imaginative fantasies. However, there has always been discussion about just how reality should be captured on film.  To what degree should the likely intrusive interference on the part of filmmaker observer be masked from the film’s subjects and its audience?   This ultimately led, as I have discussed in connection with the review of Phantom India, to two contrasting camps: those who sought a fly-on-the-wall sense of objectivity, and those who explicitly acknowledged the filmmaker’s involvement in the narrative composition. No One Knows About Persian Cats, however, doesn’t fall into either of these two camps.  It is presented as if it were objective reality, without acknowledging any intrusive presence of the camera; and yet it is clearly theatrically staged.   I don’t mean just that some events were restaged for the camera, as seems to have been the case in the recent documentary film set in Iran, Sepideh – Reaching for the Stars (2013); the whole of No One Knows About Persian Cats seems to have been restaged for the camera.  And yet it all rings true, and the filmed events are based closely on actual experiences of those shown on film.  (Note that the film's original title in English was “Nobody Knows About The Persian Cats”, which despite its close similarity to the final title is, I think, far superior. Why did they remove that definite article?)

Naturally, the circumstances behind the filming are interesting in their own right.  Given the fact that they were all working without government permission and on a subject matter, modern rock-and-roll musical expression, that the conservative authorities want to prohibit, the film crew had to shoot their scenes rapidly and be ready for disruptions at any time. A good feeling for the way in which Ghobadi operated is provided by the documentary film, Behind the Scenes of Nobody Knows about the Persian Cats, by Kavoos Aghaei – a documentary about a documentary [1]. From it we can see that Ghobadi has a conceptual feeling about what he wants from a scene, but he visualizes it from multiple alternative camera perspectives, and he frequently changes his mind and improvises during the filming.  Although some of the scenes were blocked out for the camera setups, they were not rehearsed before shooting. In fact Ghobadi began shooting the film when co-scriptwriter Hossein M. Abkenar had only finished the first half of his script [2].  This required adaptability on everyone’s part.

In particular, the contributions of cinematographer Touraj Aslani (Mansuri)  (Hamoun, 1990; Satoori, 2007; Song of the Sparrows, 2008) deserve special mention.  He used only a single camera with a single lens throughout the filming, and there were no fixed camera (tripod) settings – all the photography was handheld. From Aghaei’s documentary we can see that Aslani had to continually prowl around very close to the characters he was shooting, all the while maintaining proper compositions and a steady image.

The story revolves around the activities of three principal characters. 

  • Negar and Ashkan (played by Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad – they play themselves) are an attractive young couple who perform Indie rock music together.  They seek to get out of Iran and play in a country that will allow them to perform.
  • Nader (played by Hamed Behdad) is an energetic black-market entrepreneur who sells bootlegged CDs and DVDs and organizes underground performances – for a fee, of course. Behdad was the only professional actor in the film, and his spirited performance is crucial to the film’s narrative energy, particularly in contrast to the laid-back demeanors of many of the other performers in the film.  The fact that Behdad is also pop music performer in real life undoubtedly contributed to his understanding of the milieu of his character.
The film begins with two brief successive scenes that are presented before the main title and credits are presented and lie outside the main story that follows.  The first scene shows a seriously injured man in an ambulance, and this will connect with the final shots at the end of the film. The second scene shows an underground rock studio where Bahman Ghobadi, himself, is rehearsing some material.  The musician watching him, Babak Mirzakhani, remarks to a friend that Ghobadi has come to the studio to take his mind off his problems getting a permit to make his next movie, which he wants to base on a real-life police bust of an underground that resulted in 400 arrests. 

The use of self-reflective scenes that cast an ironic light on the film that you are watching has been conspicuously used before by Abbas Kiarostami in Close-Up (1990), Through the Olive Trees (1994), and Taste of Cherry (1997).  So we can see his influence on his proteges by the fact that two of his early assistants who have gone on to great directorial success on their own, Jafar Panahi in The Mirror (1997) and Bahman Ghobadi here, have also played with this technique.  After the titles are shown, the main story proceeds.
1.  Negar and Ashkan
In an early scene, Negar and Ashkan, who have just gotten out of prison, go to that same studio where Babak Mirzakhani was watching Ghobadi and tell him about their hopes to perform at a concert in London. They need to find backup musicians for their Indie rock group,“Take It Easy Hospital”, that performs their compositions, and they need a passport for Ashkan.  In Iran a young man cannot leave the country without having performed his military service, so they need a military certificate, too. Babak points them to the man who can help them out, Nader, the bootlegger.

Nader is all confidence.  After he (and we) listens to a CD of their music with approval, he tells them that he can solve all their problems.  He says that there are 312 Indie rock groups in Iran and 2,000 pop music groups and says that he knows everybody. He can find the counterfeit documents and backup musicians that they need. So he takes the two of them on the backseat of his motorcycle,  careening through the Tehran traffic to his various underground contacts. 

2.  Meeting Candidate Musicians
Whenever Nader takes them to a new music group, we hear some of their music – sometimes “live” while they are playing it and sometimes accompanied by various visual montages of the contemporary urban scene in Tehran.  These various musical cuts in the film are not full-length songs, but they are long enough to set a mood, and collectively they maintain the positive spirit of hopefulness that pervades the film.

One of the singers Nader takes them to is Raana Farhan, a famous recording artist in Iran, whose contacts, Nader believes, may be valuable. He also takes them to a colorful old counterfeiter, who is in the business of making false documents.  His costs are not based on his production expenses, but on whatever the market will bear, which for a military certificate or a US passport is a fortune.  Another group they visit is “Yellow Dog”, which later emigrated from Iran to the US [3].

The underground musicians that they visit all have the problem of playing their music in some  place where the authorities or nosey neighbours cannot hear them.  Some of the build soundproof  studios in basements or lofts.  Others manage to find musical sanctuary in a dairy farm outside of town.

Given all of Nader’s activities, the inevitable happens and he is picked up by the police for bootlegging immoral DVDs and sentenced to 75 lashes and an enormous fine. But in Iran, I have sometimes been told, everything is negotiable.  Nader desperately begs and wheedles with his (unseen) magistrate, pleading for mercy.  Amazingly, he manages to talk his way out of his tough sentence and only winds up paying a minor fine.  By this time, if not before, one realizes that Nader is the star of the film.

3.  Plans for a Concert

In order to raise money to pay for their documents, Nader organizes a concert, for which he hopes to get a certificate of authorization from the government. He takes Negar and Ashkan to see some more musicians, some of whom are not Indie rock performers, but are interesting nonetheless.  These include a soulful balladeer (Shervin Najafian), who does charity work and  two sisters who manage to put on performances in their own home in order to escape pressure from the authorities. They also hear Babak Mirzakhani, of the Mirza Band, belt out a blues lament in Farsi.  Then Nader takes them to a country site and sings a soulful song with his own group, complete with accompanying traditional dancers. My favourite, however, is the native Farsi rapper, Hitchkas, who punches out rhythmic odes to modern urban frustration. I am not a big fan of rap, but Hitchkas is the best rapper I have heard.

4.  The Unwinding
In the final act things begin to fall apart.  Nader, in financial straits, is forced to sell his beloved motorcycle.  The gangster counterfeiter David gets busted by the police before he can deliver the documents.  Meanwhile Negar and Ashkan are busy preparing for their big money-making concert which is to be held in a clandestine studio.  It all comes to a climax that wasn’t what our protagonists wanted.
The music in No One Knows About Persian Cats comes in many stripes, some of it, particularly the Indie rock music, sung in English and some in Farsi.  I found all of it enjoyable. But the film has a more important dimension than just showcasing contemporary music.  This is the representation of youthful enthusiasm for self-expression in music and poetry.  These musicians are not rebels, and they consciously avoid singing songs that may contradict Islamic morals or have political or social subject matter.  Most of their songs are about the joys and woes of life, itself – the subject matter of poets down through the centuries. 

Note that Ghobadi has not made a political tract.  Instead this film is more universal and is a testament to optimism and hope – as expressed by performers who have the urge to present their feelings in musical form. Despite the difficult conditions under which the film was made, it is a work of art.  Editing the film, which was mostly done in Berlin, must have been difficult, but the outcome is excellent. The narrative continuity comes through.  The various montage sequences that accompany many of the musical pieces are mostly superb and enhance the overall presentation.

But of course, there is a political dimension that cannot be denied. The characteristic calls for freedom that underlie all of Ghobadi’s films are just what the Iranian authorities do not want to hear and see. Over the past century, ruling syndicates such as Stalinism and Maoism claimed to be based on higher-order principles dedicated to our well-being; but they misused the principles by invoking them only selectively, as a cudgel, for punitive and coercive control. Religions can be misused in this way, too.  From the autocratic syndicate’s perspective, even thinking independently and expressing oneself is considered subversive [4]. For those dedicated to free expression, this represents a challenge; and how one responds to it lies at the heart of a regrettable falling out between Ghobadi and Kiarostami [5]. 

So opinions vary.  The authorities evidently believe that No One Knows About Persian Cats is contaminating and damaging to Iran.  In my view the film merely celebrates the lyrical and creative vitality of Iranian youth, and by doing so it is elevating.

  1. Note the title's reference to the original title of its subject matter.  This documentary is available on the DVD of No One Knows About Persian Cats distributed by iFC Films, New York.
  2. The screenplay credits also include Ghobadi and his close companion, Roxana Saberi. 
  3.  But “Yellow Dog” did not escape their problems once outside Iran.  See: Emily Greenhouse, “An Iranian Tragedy in America”, The New Yorker, November 13, 2013.    
  4. See, for example, the recent difficulties that a respected Iranian academic philosopher encountered: Ramin Jahanbegloo, “'I am not a spy. I am a philosopher.', 125 Days in an Iranian Prison”, The Chronicle Review, 3 October 2014.
  5. In a nutshell as I understand it, the dispute was over who was “selling out” (my words, not theirs).  Kiarostami suggested that by leaving his home country and culture, Ghobadi was abandoning his artistic mission.  Ghobadi's response was basically that (a) he had no choice about leaving the country and (b) Kiarostami, by muffling his artistic voice and cooperating with the authorities inside the country, was doing something that Ghobadi in good conscience could never do.  See Rasmus Christian Elling, “Catfight? Or Time for A New Direction in Iranian Cinema?”, Copenhagen University Middle East and Islam Network (CUMINet), November 9, 2009.

"Salma and the Apple" - Habibollah Bahmani (2011)

Salma and the Apple (Sib o Salma, 2011), a recent film by Iranian director Habibollah Bahmani, not only has the look and feel of a moral tale – its subject matter is self-consciously concerned with moral tales. In this respect it is like many Iranian films that are set in mundane circumstances but have a near universal scope.  The story relates how the moral convictions of a young seminarian affect those he encounters on a holiday visit to his home village.  Along the way, a question keeps coming to mind: what is truly important in life?

The screenplay for the film was written by Nasser Hashemzadeh, who I believe was one of the scriptwriters for Majid Majidi’s The Willow Tree (Beed-e Majnoon, 2005), and it unfolds like a series of mythic parables that are interlinked to a common theme.  At the very beginning of the film, prior to the title credits, there is a hallucinatory scene of a young man meditating or praying in a pastoral setting.  The camera work here, featuring multiple dissolves of shots circulating and panning around a central point, will be repeated at critical points later in the story. There is then a cut to a young woman in a parked car along a highway roadside who had apparently dozed off while driving and has just awakened from a dream. The two figures in this opening sequence will be the focus of this film, the story of which proceeds to pass through four phases or “acts”.

1.  Introducing Sadeq
The first act introduces Sadeq (played by Hadi Dibaji), a young man who has returned for a visit to his provincial home after having been away studying at a seminary for several years. His parents are happy to see him, and his mother urges him while he his home to use the opportunity to go visit his aunt in a nearby town and ask for the hand of her daughter, Narges, in marriage (apparently marriage to her would also come with title to a small piece of land). She supplies him with a “suitor’s bundle” – a bag of small ceremonial presents to give as part of the marriage proposal ritual. 

As Sadeq proceeds with this mission, we see that his humble and benign demeanor seems to have a benevolent effect on all those that he meets.  When he takes an inter-city taxi trip, the driver turns out to be a former acquaintance, Hamed, who is agitated to see Sadeq with a suitor’s bundle.  It turns out that Hamed had hoped to marry Narges, himself, and seeing that Sadeq is seeking the betrothal of the woman he loves, he stops his car and punches out his passenger.  But Sadeq’s passive response displays boundless benevolence.  At the first opportunity, he sneaks away from the taxi, leaving his suitor’s bundle and a note to Hamed telling him to offer the presents to Narges and marry her – and have the accompanying land, too.  Such is Sadeq’s selfless way.

Continuing on the road, Sadeq encounters a shepherd, and they exchange some cryptic pleasantries. Encounters with this same shepherd will occur at other points, and these brief scenes seem to offer symbolic shifts introducing the next act of the story.

2.  The Apple
Sadeq stops by an orchard to perform his ablutions and say his prayers. When an apple drops from a nearby tree, he picks it up and takes a bite out of it.  But then he feels remorse – this apple tree clearly must belong to someone, and Sadeq feels that he should  have asked for permission to eat the apple.

He finds a gardener nearby and asks him for retroactive permission to eat his apple.  The gardener is intrigued by the young man’s moral rectitude and wants to engage him in further discussion.  Soon seeing, however, that he cannot get very far with Sadeq in such a discussion, he points out that the true permission that the young man seeks must come from the landlord, Seyed Jalal, and he tells young man where to find him.

When Sadeq finds Jalal, he is quickly given the permission he seems to seek, but then he is informed that Jalal is not the real landlord, either. The actual landlord had recently died, leaving his young daughter, Salma, who has recently arrived from the city to tidy up family affairs, as the true landlord.

3.  Sadeq meets Salma
At the house Sadeq is doing his ablutions again when he sees Salma (Sogol Qalatian) from a distance, and his head begins to spin, as evoked by another encircling dissolve-laden camera shot.  Later Sadeq talks to Salma, hoping that she will be the one to give him permission for having eaten the apple. Salma, though, is not so quick to grant him what he wants.  She is a university graduate in philosophy and is incredulous that she has encountered such a naive young man, finally asking him, “do you live in present time?”  She is impatient with such foolishness, but, like the gardener earlier, also charmed by Sadeq’s innocence.  She finally tells him that she will give him the retroactive permission he seeks on the condition that he start reciting from the Quran.  Immediately Sadeq goes to the garden and commences his recitations.

Sadeq assumes that he will have to recite the whole Quran, so this will take awhile. He stays the night, and there are further discussions. At dinner Sadeq mentions that he had come to the area to marry his niece (not having the occasion to mention that he had abandoned that mission to Hamed). Upon hearing this, Salma petulantly leaves the dining room. 

The next morning, Salma  criticises the Sadeq for always looking down and avoiding her gaze, and she tells him to go back to the place where he had left his “suitor’s bundle”.

4.  The Parting
So Sadeq is on the road again.  He runs into Hamed, who expresses guilt for having been so selfish earlier, returns Sadeq’s suitor’s bundle to him, and then urges him to go ahead and marry Narges.  Once again Sadeq’s benign, passive innocence has had the effect of summoning up the virtuous instincts of those he encounters. 

Then Sadeq runs into Jalal, who informs him that Salma has gone looking for him and has vanished into the woods.  Sadeq joins the search for her and while wandering in the fields has an incandescent, hallucinatory vision of encountering Salma by the apple tree in the orchard.  In the vision they sit down facing each other, and he looks her in the eye this time.  They are finally connected.  But then she suddenly vanishes, and he wakes up from his dream.

Sadeq goes back to the house, where he finds Salma safe and sound.  She tells him that she is planning to write a book on dreams (suggesting, as foreshadowed at the start of the film, that she has dreamed of him, too).  Then she asks him, “what was the verse you were repeating from the Quran last night?”  His rueful answer is simply, “is God not enough for His servant?”  Then he departs for good.

So the brief encounter between Salma and Sadeq ends without them really determining what is the essence of haram and halal.  Perhaps they are only left with vague feelings of unspecified guilt.  Certainly we, ourselves, may be left with questions concerning what it all means. 

In this connection, it is worthwhile to bring up two mythical stories from ancient religious teachings that may be evoked or suggested by this story:
  • The story of Adam and Eve (Hawwā’) eating the apple in the Garden of Eden
  • The story of Joseph (Yusuf) and Zuleika (Zulaikha)

The story of Adam and Eve is told in both Christian and Islamic versions, but there are some differences.  In the Christian story, Adam and Eve are told by God not to eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Tempted by a serpent (thought to be Satan), though, Eve does eat the fruit and offers it to Adam. In the Quranic version of the story, Hawwā’ (Eve) does not tempt Adam to eat the fruit – they both simply shared the fruit together. Also neither the Bible nor the Quran explicitly mentions that the forbidden fruit was an apple. The idea of it being an apple is a Western tradition that may have been associated with translations of the Bible into Latin and confusions over the similarity of the Latin words for ‘apple’ (mālum) and ‘evil’ (mălum). Nevertheless, perhaps due to various cultural interminglings over time, it is my understanding that past Persian poets have explicitly referred to the forbidden fruit of this story as an apple, and so the idea of the “forbidden fruit” being an apple is familiar to many Iranians. Perhaps, then, the idea of the apple symbolically representing worldly temptation is an underlying motif in Salma and the Apple

The story of Yusuf and Zulaikha, meanwhile, may be more directly relevant to the Salma and the Apple narrative, and indeed Salma makes an explicit reference to the story during a conversation with Sadeq.  In that ancient story Joseph, son of Jacob, is dropped by his jealous brothers into a deep pit in the desert.  Passing traders find the boy and sell him to the Egyptian nobleman, Potiphar.  Potiphar’s wife, Zuleika, is soon overcome with lustful passion for the handsome Joseph, and she attempts to seduce him by various means. But Joseph, mindful of not committing the sin of adultery, resists her efforts. In the ancient Jewish version of the story, Zuleika is depicted at length as a relentless sexual predator, while the Quranic version offers only a relatively terse description of their interaction. Nevertheless, in all three Jewish, Christian, and Islamic holy texts, Zuleika is cast as an evil seductress bent on corrupting the handsome young man. However, later Persian Sufi poets Hafez, Rumi, and Jami cast her in an entirely different light, focussing on her self-effacing surrender to eternal love. From this latter perspective, Zuleika’s commitment to completely selfless love is akin to divine union with the mysterious Almighty.

So is Salma comparable to Zuleika in the ancient tale?  Certainly she has the lordly role here of the overseeing mistress (of the farm), and she may be also somewhat captivated by the innocent charm of Sadeq. But she never expresses any lustful desires for the young man, just a fascination [1].  All we are left with is vague inquisitiveness. And indeed that is the character of the entire film. We have an extended mood piece before us that has been enhanced by fine acting performances, evocative music (by Sattar Orkay), and occasionally dreamlike camera work.  But at the end a satisfying closure is not reached.

In the end Sadeq’s response to his own question, “Is God not enough for His servant?”, is to withdraw from life and return to the seminary.  By doing this he avoids corrupting himself, but he also misses an opportunity to find sublime enlightenment. The Persian Sufi poets had it right – the way to spiritual fulfilment is through loving engagement with another soulmate. The potential infinite rewards for taking this path outweigh the risks.  In fact even the brief encounter between Salma and Sadeq – that momentary engagement – accomplished something important and of permanence. For she was changed by him, and he was changed by her.

  1. The film presentation steers clear of any sensuous suggestiveness, and, for example, none of the nine or so women shown in the film show even a single strand of head hair.

“For a Few Dollars More” - Sergio Leone (1965)

Sergio Leone, who very early in his career served as a production assistant to Vittorio de Sica for Bicycle Thieves (1948), started off directing low-budget “sword and sandal” (aka peplum) epics in the late 1950s for the Italian film industry. But in 1964 he switched genres with his A Fistful of Dollars, which was set in the American Old West.  The extraordinary success of that film launched the ensuing craze of the “Spaghetti Western”, of which Leone was the acknowledged master.  Leone went on to make two sequels to A Fistful of DollarsFor a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) – and together they are referred to as the “Dollars Trilogy” or the “Man With No Name Trilogy”.  All three films were very successful, but I believe the second production, For a Few Dollars More, is the best of the three. A Fistful of Dollars was more or less a direct copy of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) but recast into a Western setting, and while it was entertaining, it was inferior to Yojimbo.  The two subsequent “Dollars” films offered intensifications and exaggerations of Leone’s stylized dramatic techniques, but by the time we get to the third one, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, things have become somewhat overcooked and reached the level of slapstick.  For me, it’s the middle one in the series, For a Few Dollars More, that stands tallest.

Note that all three “Dollars” films display something of a casual, even cynical, attitude towards the American Western genre to which they belong. The surreal level of violence and the mounting body count in these films are not suitable for all tastes, even if the “bad guys” get what they deserve. Indeed, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther was highly critical of the almost adolescent depiction of violence in the film [1].  In order to enter into the fantasy world of all three films (and For a Few Dollars More in particular), one must suspend one’s normal sensibilities about killing and true-to-life realism, as if one were watching a sci-fi or horror film.

For a Few Dollars More tells the story of two professional bounty hunters who compete to collect the reward for the capture or killing of a notorious outlaw.  One of the bounty hunters is “The Man With No Name”, again played by Clint Eastwood, who was the principal character in A Fistful of Dollars.  In that respect For a Few Dollars More is a sequel, but there is otherwise no narrative connection in this film to the earlier film.

Aside from Eastwood and Van Cleef, most of the rest of the cast comprised Italian actors, which didn’t matter too much, since all the dialogue was dubbed.  The most significant characters in the film are
  • Manco (Clint Eastwood) – a bounty hunter and known to the screen public as “The Man With No Name”.
  • Colonel Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) – the “Man in Black” – a bounty hunter who was once a respected military commander from “the Carolinas.”
  • El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté) – his name in Spanish means “The Indian”, and he is the ultimate bad guy.
  • Juan Wild, the Hunchback (Klaus Kinski) – a member of Indio's Gang.  Kinski would later achieve fame in some Werner Herzog films, such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979).
We expect that our narrative interest will focus on Manco, the presumed hero, but it turns out that the other bounty hunter (the “Man in Black”, played by Lee Van Cleef) is equally interesting, if not more so.  It is the interaction between these two ruthless and suspicious bounty hunters that fascinates.  The contrasting personalities of the two bounty hunters is notable:
This is not his name, but merely a soubriquet which means “the one-handed man”, since Manco does almost everything with his left hand.  He keeps his right hand shielded by his serape so that at first one wonders as if he is paralyzed on the right side. But when he draws and shoots his gun, he uses his right hand to deadly effect. Manco is intuitive and a perceiver, who delays action until the last second, at which point he becomes lethal.

Mortimer is about twenty years older than Manco and is a thinker.  In fact, though Manco is the presumed hero, it turns out that Mortimer is smarter, more thoughtful, better equipped with weapons, and a better shot.  He seems to be superior to Manco in every way. 
Neither man is very trustful, but it seems that Mortimer is more trusting of Manco than Manco is of Mortimer.

Another key aspect of the film is Leone’s cinematography and overall mise-en-scene. The settings look realistic enough for some Mexican border villages, but the exteriors were shot in Almeria, Spain, and the interiors in the Cinecitta studios in Rome. Leone uses picturesque long shots to set the scene, and then varies the pace by building up the tension as one of the many tense confrontations takes place between mutually hostile characters.  Leone draws out the tension in each of these scenes by showing  tight close-ups of the contestants and the onlookers.  We are expecting extreme violence in these scenes, but we have to wait as the tension mounts on each occasion.  Since these confrontations are key to the film, I will label them as C1, C2, . . . in the following.

The overall narrative goes through four basic acts that tell the tale.
1.  Introducing the Principals
In the first act, we see Mortimer hunt down and kill a wanted man so that he can collect the $1,000 reward.  This is confrontation C1. The man Mortimer kills looks inhuman, more like a rabid animal, and this  presumably serves as Leone’s “gentle” introduction to the bloodshed that will follow (roughly 30 people will be killed in this story).  Mortimer is supercool and displays his deadly marksmanship. 

In the following scene, Manco comes into a small town and finds his bounty target in a saloon. Again there is a slow buildup before Manco dispatches the wanted man and his three henchman with a few quick shots in confrontation C2.  For this he gets a $2,000 reward.

Up to this point we have been presented with two ruthless killers, and these are supposed to be the “good” guys. So their target, the third principal, has to be much worse than these guys for our sympathies to be in the right place. And Leone meets those requirements by depicting “El Indio” as an utterly sadistic psychopath who delights in the suffering he inflicts on others.  Indio is initially shown being sprung from prison by his outlaw gang, and in the process, he cruelly kills his cell-mate (C3), who had earlier given him the secret of where all the money was stored at the famous El Paso bank.  Once out of prison, Indio captures another bounty hunter (not Manco or Mortimer) who had sent Indio to prison, and he then has this man’s wife and infant child exterminated in front of him.  Then Indio finishes him off, too, by conducting what is apparently his killing ritual: a mock duel (C4), whereby he starts his musical pocket watch playing a brief tune, the ending of which will signal the time for annihilating his victim.  Leone builds up the tension during this sequence by showing 18 successive extreme close-ups of various participants and onlookers during the period that the pocket-watch music is playing.

Indio’s musical pocket watch ritual will be repeated, and we eventually learn via brief flashbacks that it is associated with an earlier time when he was obsessively in love with Colonel Mortimer’s sister. When he had encountered her with her lover who was giving her the pocket watch as a gift, he killed the man and raped her. But in the middle of his treacherous act, the mortified woman killed herself. Whenever Indio recalls those horrible moments, he drifts into a marijuana-laced haze of madness.

2.  Manco and Mortimer Meet Up
When Indio, Manco, and Mortimer variously learn that the well-guarded El Paso bank has the most money in the region, maybe one million dollars, they all head there.  Indio goes with the intention of robbing the bank, while the two bounty hunters, knowing Indio’s insatiable appetite, separately go to El Paso hoping to get the $10,000 bounty on Indio’s head. There are two confrontations in this act, but unlike the first four confrontations, they do no result in bloodshed. In the first one, C5, Mortimer intentionally insults one of Indio’s men, the hunchback Juan Wild, but despite sinister glares, nothing comes of it. In the next confrontation, C6, Manco discovers that there is another bounty hunter, Mortimer, who is after his quarry, and he tries to force him out of town. This results in a life-threatening display of marksmanship between the two, as they shoot off each other’s hats.  In the end, they decide that it makes more sense to team up and work together against Indio’s gang of 14 gun-toting desperados.

3.  The El Paso Bank Robbery
Manco reluctantly accepts Mortimer’s proposal that he join Indio’s gang and work from the inside.  This he manages to do, and he is sent off with three other gang members to rob a bank in a nearby town.  Once safely out of town, though, Manco kills the other three gang members in another deadly confrontation (C7).  When he returns to El Paso, he and Mortimer keep an eye on the bank in hopes off thwarting Indio’s intended robbery.  However, Indio’s lightning strike is too well-planned, and Indio and his men make off with the bank’s safe.

Mortimer now tells Manco to rejoin Indio’s gang and convince them all to head north. Manco joins them, but hoping to get all the stolen money for himself, he tries to double-cross Mortimer by convincing the gang to head south.  Indio has his own ideas, though, and decides that the gang should head east, to the small town of Aqua Caliente.

4.  Agua Caliente
When the gang arrives in the small town, the crafty Mortimer is there too: knowing how evil minds work, he had anticipated everything.  Bearing no grudges, Mortimer then helps Manco get through another confrontation (C8) with sinister townsfolk from Agua Caliente by displaying his uncanny marksmanship.  Then he has a deadly confrontation with the hunchback Wild in the local tavern (C9).

Through mutual greed, further double-crossings, and Indio’s relentless treachery, the rest of the gang is bumped off, one by one.  Eventually it comes down to the final confrontation (C10), again with the pocket watch, between Mortimer and Indio.  Mortimer gets his revenge, and when asked by Manco before departing if he wants his share of the money and bounties, he says, “maybe next time.”
It is difficult to specify exactly what are the elements that make For a Few Dollars More effective.  Perhaps it is its strange blend of fantasy, iconic images, and in-your-face engagement. Certainly realism is not the focus.  The marksmanship of Manco and Mortimer is impossibly accurate – they never miss, while their opponents almost always do.  In addition there is a ridiculous scene in which Manco and Mortimer are caught trying to escape from the gang with the stolen loot and are subsequently severely beaten up. This extended thrashing is so brutal that it would kill any normal person.  And yet Manco and Mortimer soon recover and barely have scratches on their faces to show for it.

No, what makes the film is the emotional intensity that is generated by the music and the pacing. Strangely, the musical score by  Ennio Morricone is an integral and thematic part to the narrative. Morricone was a former classmate of Leone, and Leone would usually have the musical score for his films composed prior to shooting.  Then he would have the music played on the set (remember, the film was dubbed) while the film was shot. This may have served as an emotional guide for Leone’s direction and for the acting, too. In addition, the editorial shifts between long shots and sequences of extreme close-ups tend to put the viewer very much inside the action.  The overall effect is expressionistic immersion, and despite the lack of literal realism, it can promote a kind of emotional realism.  After all, that’s what cinema is about.

A final word concerns the role of Colonel Mortimer, played by Lee Van Cleef. We expect that Clint Eastwood’s character, Manco, will be the primary protagonist, but it is Van Cleef’s character that eventually dominates. He is smarter, more skilled, more measured, and more stylish than the rough-hewn, cheroot-smoking Manco. And there are interesting details about his style that one picks up as the film progresses.  He wears his gun in a cross-draw position, which would be a slower draw in a duel that requires lightning speed.  But in two lethal duels he faces in the film, he just happens to be equipped with a gun at his hip when he needs it.  Watch for that when you see the film.

  1. Bosley Crowther, “For a Few Dollars More”, The New York Times, 4 July 1967.