"Father" - Majid Majidi (1996)

Majid Majidi, the greatest of Iranian filmmakers, was born in 1959 and early on became involved in the Tehran theatre and film scene. His first feature, Baduk, was released in 1992 and though very well received has not been released on video or DVD. Father (Pedar) was his second outing and already displays the uncanny skills of a master film storyteller.

The story concerns Mehrolla, a young boy about 14 years old, who has just spent four months away from his village, working in the bazaar of an Iranian seaport city. From the opening scenes in the city, we quickly learn that the boy is quiet, but independent minded and somewhat rebellious towards authority. When the boy makes the long journey across the arid, desolate south Iranian landscape and arrives back home with his hard-earned money, we eventually learn (a) that the boy had been working to support his mother and three sisters after the recent death of his father and (b) that during the boy’s absence his mother had married a local police officer. What could be more disruptive for a rebellious boy than to have his mother secretly marry into the police?

Mehrolla, rejecting his mother’s decision to remarry, refuses to live in her new home (the policeman’s) and instead camps out in the old family home that is now abandoned. He intends to stay there, but after falling seriously ill, he is brought back to his family home against his will. Although the step-father makes some gestures of conciliation, there are matters of pride and “face” that neither Mehrollah nor his new father can overcome. One night Mehrolla steals his father’s gun and is about to kill him, when a noise interrupts his plans, and he runs away. Thereafter, he and his best friend flee back to the seacoast city, but now the father, having had his service revolver stolen by a teenage boy, is in hot pursuit.

Eventually the father makes it to the city on his motorcycle, catches Mehrolla in the city, and after handcuffing the boy to his motorcycle, sets about on the long journey home. But getting home is not so easy and consumes the second half of the film. Several times Mehrolla escapes, but because he is an inexperienced boy alone in a desolate wilderness, he is recaptured by his father. All this time, there is something of a cat-and-mouse game between Mehrolla and his father concerning who will have the upper hand and command respect. Eventually, though, their motorcycle engine gives out, and they must proceed the rest of the way on foot across the desert. Gradually the two travellers, along with the viewing audience, come to realise that their lives are now at stake, and matters of pride are becoming less important.

After staggering through dust storms and blistering heat from exposure to the sun, they are unable to find any water that could save them from imminent death. The father, unable to go on, finally uncuffs the boy and urges him to save himself while he still has some strength. But the boy drags his father forward a few feet at a time in a seemingly hopeless and self-defeating effort to find something in the barren landscape. Nearing the end of his strength, the boy notices some wild camels in the distance and makes his way towards them, where he discovers a small waterhole. He staggers back to his father and just manages to drag him to the hole and attain salvation for them both. The closing shots of the two semiconscious principals lying half-submerged in the water pool, with the boy dimly aware of a dropped family photograph featuring his stepfather floating towards him in the water, not only bring an artistic closure to the story, but generate in us an epiphany of sympathy and understanding that echoes what is going on in the boy’s consciousness.

So Father has a relatively simple theme of two uncompromising males who, after sharing a difficult life-altering experience, become somewhat reconciled. What makes this a great film, and why, in general, is Majidi’s cinematic style so compelling? First, we should comment that Majidi’s visual style uses the full range of cinematic expression and contrasts significantly with that of Abbas Kiarostami (mostly long-lasting medium-closeup shots), Babak Payami (mostly long-lasting long shots) and Mohsen Makhmalbaf (static and awkward cinematography). These other directors have all attracted interest from intellectual film critics partly because of their exotic and minimalist forms of expression, which contrast so drastically with our own cultural conventions. Majidi, on the other hand, like his compatriot, Dariush Mehrjui, uses finely crafted film expression technique that is more immediately accessible for Western audiences. (It’s worth remarking that the acting by the four principals in Father is superb, featuring a nuanced characterisation of the step-father by Mohammad Kasebi, who had also starred in Majidi’s Baduk and had earlier co-starred in 1985 with Majidi, himself, in Makhbalbaf’s Boycott.) Another feature of Majidi’s films that distinguishes him from his Iranian contemporaries is that his narrative themes, while authentically embedded in the Iranian cultural milieu, are more universal and can be readily apprehended by people from all over the world. In this sense, Majidi’s expression is somewhat like Zhang Yimou’s, whose films resonate with audiences across a wide global spectrum. However, the filmmaker that most easily comes to my mind when I watch Majidi’s films if Federico Fellini. I will try to elaborate on this in subsequent posts.

Note that a mainstream filmmaker trying to raise funds for a project with the basic scenario of Father might have difficulty finding backers, since most film investors only want to invest their money in projects with “tangible” positives, such as a shooting script filled with winning dialogue or having big stars lined up. For this reason, we don’t usually see mainstream English language films of this nature, but if we go back to some European films of the 1950s and 1960s, we find moody, psychologically expressionistic and existential works from Fellini, Antonioni, and others that more often address universal themes of human existence. So if you’re looking for a modern Fellini, try to track down some Majidi films.

A significant aspect of Majidi’s films is the way they end. At the close of Father, as with three other films of his that I have seen, Color of Paradise, Children of Heaven, and Baran, there is an epiphanic moment that raises the viewer above the particular circumstances of the story and yields an otherwise inexpressible feeling of the grandeur and majesty of life. We are left with a sympathy for the principal characters, who are always humanly fallible and grounded in their specific situations, and we are also left to contemplate the inevitably tragic, yet beautiful, circumstances of life. This is a consistent feature of Majidi, but Fellini was able to achieve this, too.

Mehrjui has an element of this contemplative look at human existence, as well, but his endings are always more pessimistic and not as uplifting as those of Majidi. In any case, there is ample room for both modes of expression. Given the aesthetic affinities between Majidi and Mehrjui, one might wonder if Iranian filmmakers are more attuned to this kind of expression, thanks to their rich, philosophical, and Sufi-influenced cultural traditions. The great Iranian Sufi poets, such as Attar and Hafez, expressed themselves along these lines, as well.

Finally, we might have to acknowledge that it is dangerous to make a film such that its full appreciation is dependent on the final shots. It’s almost like composing a piece of music that is dependent on the final note. Can we consider a film to be a great if it is so carefully focused? Yes, in Majidi's case, we can.

"The Secret" - Rhonda Byrne and Drew Heriot (2006)

The Australian documentary film, The Secret, is concerned with self-fulfilment, but the degree to which it reflects the current disturbing drift of our Western culture may be more significant than its explicit subject material. Its full production credits say that it is produced by Rhonda Byrne and Paul Harrington, directed by Drew Heriot, Sean Byrne, Marc Goldenfein, and Damian McLindon, and written by Rhonda Byrne and Hayley Byrne. Although the film can be categorised as a documentary film, it belongs more specifically in the category of self-help and new-age media offerings. Basically, it consists of a series of interviews, occasionally interspersed with a few diagrams, that describe the pseudo-scientific “Law of Attraction”, which has supposedly been secretly understood by various spiritual messengers over the ages and is finally being revealed to the wider world by means of this film. The “Law of Attraction” is simple and basically comes down to this: if you want something, all you have to do is visualize it and believe that you will get it; and then it will come to you automatically. That’s it. You can consult Wikipedia pages on The Secret and the “Law of Attraction”, but you will only get an elaboration on what I have just stated.

From this description you may wonder why I would cover it at all, but there are a few aspects to this particular film that make it stand out and be worthy of further consideration. First of all the film is professionally photographed and, though relentlessly “talky”, has satisfactory production values. In addition, it features a number of well-known or reasonably professional witnesses who supply their testimony (and are presumed to endorse the “Law of Attraction”), including:
  • Jack Canfield, a self-motivation speaker and author well-known for his Chicken Soup for the Soul;
  • John Hagelin, a high-energy physicist with a PhD from Harvard, who has published in the professional physics literature, but who has become interested in consciousness;
  • Fred Alan Wolf, another high-energy physicist (PhD from UCLA), who has been a resident scientist for the Discovery Channel and who, like Hagelin, is fascinated with a possible connection between quantum phenomena and consciousness.
These elements perhaps give the film a certain seductive cachet that adds to the persuasiveness of the message and that has helped generate an enthusiastic reception on the part of many viewers.

Examining the Internet Movie Database Web site (IMDB – http://www.imdb.com), it can be seen that a strikingly high percentage, 34%, of the user ratings are at the highest level of 10. Compare this, for example, to the 10-level ratings of recent films that I would consider to be among the best, Chicago (19%), The Constant Gardiner (16%), Babel (17%), and The Curse of the Golden Flower (13%). Certainly, The Secret has generated a positive response of unprecedented degree. However, note that another 26% of the user ratings are at the lowest possible value, 1, and this degree of dismissal is also highly unusual for the IMDB site: either people love it, or they loathe it. This partitioning into two camps, though, isn’t just a matter of aesthetic taste, which would normally generate a smoother variation between love and hate responses. No, it’s a situation where some people are “buying in” to the film’s message, and others are rejecting it as utter nonsense and charlatanry. For many people it’s not a matter of pretty or not pretty; it’s a case of correct or incorrect.

If you haven’t seen this film and you are a bit cynical, you might wonder why they don’t apply the “Law of Attraction” to finding beautiful girls or to getting rich. In fact, the lecturers in the film do talk about these subjects at length. They tell you that their approach is a sure-fire way to score with members of the opposite sex, and you can also acquire enough money to buy a big house with a swimming pool. You might imagine that this level of materialism would be a turn-off and drive away anyone with a sound mind, but it apparently doesn’t. For many weeks, the book version of this film was the #1 seller on Amazon.com.

The intriguing thing for me about The Secret, though, is not so much whether it is right or wrong (and make no mistake, it is profoundly wrong), but the clear-cut way that it reveals the failure of our educational system, and ultimately of our culture, to understand what is true. We know that all cultures have many stories or theories about the world that are offered to help guide people towards the “true”, and ultimately towards a satisfactory life situation. Some of these stories are mystical or religiously based and cannot be demonstrated as “factual”, but for various reasons we may decide to believe in these theories anyway and feel that they are superior to other, competing theories about the world. But Western culture, particularly during the last four hundred years or so, has developed systems of scientific explanation that can be repeatedly demonstrated by empirical confirmation. This scientific and technical culture has enabled Western societies to build tall buildings, jet planes, and telecommunications systems. But it has not been able to provide empirically testable models that cover all aspects of the world in which we live, and so consciousness, mind, and many other realms of human life lie outside the scope of our scientific model-building. For these other areas of life, we, whether scientists or not, must form our beliefs based on other cultural models that are not completely scientific. Thus we may believe that a god created the universe, even though this cannot be demonstrated scientifically.

Now a key characteristic of our scientific models is its “mechanical” nature – mechanical in the sense of following strict, logical rules, like a machine. These rules are what make the predictability of the models reproducible in various circumstances. Unfortunately though, although many people in our society have been exposed to and have memorised some of these scientific models, they have not been taught or have understood the nature of scientific thinking in general. As a consequence, these people may prize bogus mechanical models without considering their falsifiability and potential for empirical validation.

And this is this precisely where The Secret is not only wrong, but is actually pernicious. It presents its simplistic model, the “Law of Attraction”, as a “scientific” model and insists that its secret is not something associated with mystical or religious belief, but is provably correct. It then goes on to show interviews with quantum physicists and various “philosophers” in order to put a stamp of authority, supposedly scientific authority, on the message. And this is why people who have a some superficial, schoolbook familiarity with science may be more susceptible to The Secret's falsehoods than others.

But couldn’t I be more generous and just dismiss The Secret as harmless nonsense? After all, don’t we delight in telling our children that there is a Santa Claus who will bring them presents every Christmas? Well, the Santa Claus story is not told to adults and is not presented as a scientifically correct model on which to base life decisions. Furthermore, we gradually instruct our children to appreciate the “Christmas spirit”, rather than to focus on selfish and materialistic gains. OK, what about of being positive, of believing in yourself, like Rocky, that discipline and perseverance will pay off? Shouldn’t we permit this film to let us dream a little and say “yes, we can”? No, not when it makes false promises designed to feed greed and avarice and makes unsubstantiated claims that these promises have a scientific backing. If you want to say, “yes, we can”, you need a sound pathway to follow in order to accomplish what you want. I do in fact believe that human mental states associated with love, meditation, and positive thinking can have a real tangible and beneficial effect on our surroundings. But there are at present no empirically reproducible findings (despite claims of qigong practitioners) that establish a sound scientific model in this area. And Sufism, Buddhism, and other spiritual practices and belief systems that can potentially guide us in a positive way are infinitely more sophisticated than the mindless candy of the “Law of Attraction”.

Moreover, The Secret is almost a distillation of why it is misleading to lump many of philosophical belief systems into the single term of “religion”. Here’s why. Throughout human history there have appeared enlightened masters or prophets who have had great insight into the nature of human existence who have attracted devoted disciples. The teachings of these masters are so profound that they are not easily (perhaps not even possibly) expressible in terms of the linguistic categories of our spoken and written languages (which are always founded on down-to-earth human interactions). But despite the inherent difficulties, the attempt is invariably made to document those teachings into a canon, and they wind up being expressed as rules, precepts, and warnings, which over the years lose all contact with the contexts in which they were originally uttered. Thus yet another religion is established that comprises another collection of mechanical rules that have lost the original profound insights of the master. Some of these established religions promise their followers that if they follow the mechanical rules carefully, they will be rewarded in heaven with various materialistic pleasures and beautiful companions. These mechanical, rule-based religions are just a set of behavioural rules, with no real connection to a spiritual foundation and hence somewhat arbitrary, yet these same religions stubbornly assert their preeminence and accommodate no modification once they are solidified. We have a term for the practice of blindly following arbitrary rules based on custom – “superstition”, and we distinguish this from true religion. I argue that the insights of the original enlightened masters, passed on from master to disciple, are what constitute true religion, and that the mechanical, rule-based religions that have followed in their wake are of a fundamentally different nature and are primarily superstitious.

One of the great virtues of the rise of Western science has been the procedures that it has established for empirical validation of new models and theories. Wherever a set of beliefs wanders into the realm of empirical verification, it can be put to the test and, if not confirmed, can be dismissed as false or superstitious. This has enabled scientists to toss astrology into the dustbin, because its predictions are empirically false. Moreover, those belief systems that make unfalsifiable predictions can be dismissed as useless, too – psychoanalysis is a notorious example of this from our cultural past. But, unfortunately, we have a problem in our attempts to provide a common, mass education to our citizens. We are only teaching them to memorize rule-based systems, and not concentrating on the nature of empirical verification and falsifiability. As alarming proof of this, there are studies showing that over 50% of US PhD holders actually believe in astrology.

But there is nothing quite so blatantly wrong-headed as the “Law of Attraction”. This is presented as a scientific theory and supposedly endorsed by quantum physicists. Instead of doing what traditional religions do by taking the profound insights of an enlightened master and reducing them to a banal set of rules, The Secret, with its “Law of Attraction”, dispenses with the religious authority altogether and directly claims to rely on scientific authority. But it doesn’t rely on science, because it can’t. It gives you a simplistic, unfalsifiable rule (unfalsifiable, because if you don’t get what you wanted, you didn’t visualise and believe hard enough) and presents this as hard science. The fact that many college-educated people fall for this absurdity is not only disappointing but also offers a pointer to something profoundly wrong with our educational system and our culture. With a citizenry so ill-equipped to spot fraudulent reasoning, our culture could easily be susceptible to accepting arguments advocating torture and preemptive military strikes on innocent people.


"Secret Ballot" - Babak Payami (2001)

Babak Payami, born in 1966, lived some of his early years in Afghanistan and at the time of the 1979 revolution moved to Canada, where he studied filmmaking at the University of Toronto. He returned to Iran in 1978 and directed his first film, One More Day. Secret Ballot (2001) was his second feature and attracted international attention, including the Best Director prize at the Venice Film Festival. (In 2003 Payami ran into trouble with Iranian officials in connection with his third feature, Silence Between Two Thoughts, and all the original film material was confiscated. A low-quality digital reconstruction of this film was subsequently released abroad, and Payami left Iran to pursue his career overseas.)

Secret Ballot (Raye Makhfi) concerns an earnest and idealistic young woman who comes to a provincial Iranian island to supervise an election process by travelling around and collecting votes from the peasants that she can find. The name of the island, the nature of the election, and the names characters are never identified in the film. The episodic plot takes place in a single day and consists of various encounters with local, often illiterate, peasants whom the election agent attempts to entice into voting. Since she travels about in a jeep with a reluctant soldier to guard her, the film has sometimes been described as a “road movie”, and it does have the aimless quality of such films.

There are two main issues, or areas of interest, to discuss in connection with this film. One concerns what the movie is really about thematically, while the second issue concerns Payami’s distinctive film narrative style in this movie.

The film is presented in something of a neo-realist and minimalist fashion, but also depicts bizarre, unrealistic situations, reminiscent of Luis Bunuel’s early films. This has led to a wide variety of critical responses. Most reviewers, and even to a certain extent Payami, himself, describe the film unambiguously as a comedy. But most certainly the film is not a comedy, at least not the way I use that term. The film does contain absurd, even surreal elements (just as Bunuel’s films do), and this surrealism can perhaps be unsettling to some viewers, establishing a distance between the viewer and what’s present, just as a joke might do. Faced with a surreal event, the viewer might feel compelled to laugh nervously at the absurdity of it all, but I contend that neither Bunuel’s films nor Secret Ballot are truly funny. Surreal art productions can tickle the imagination, they can fascinate us, but they are not “HA HA” funny. Yet I have been present at screenings of Bunuel films during which the audience was (nonsensically) screaming with laughter. Now it is somewhat dangerous to assert something of an objective standard for comedy, but I believe that most sensitive viewers would agree with me: this film is surreal, it is absurd, but it is not funny. My contention is perhaps even more controversial in view of the fact that Payami, himself, apparently thinks Secret Ballot is funny. But I wonder if Payami’s remarks on this score may have been influenced by the enthusiastic reception of Western reviewers who describe the film as a comedy.

A related idea concerns the degree to which symbolism has a prominent role in the film. The surreal moments, such as the appearance of red stoplight in the middle of the dessert, are often thought to be highly symbolic, but I think that it would be a hopeless exercise to attempt to construct a detailed symbolic or allegorical framework in order to explain the meaning of the film. Those absurd, surreal constructs that appear in the film can be striking, but, like explaining a Salvador Dali painting, it’s probably unwise to pursue their collective meaning to much depth and overall coherency.

So, returning to the subject of what the film is about, what message does it have, we can identify three main topics: (a) the hopelessness of establishing a true democracy in a traditional society like Iran, (b) the confrontation between the conflicting perspectives of an educated, city-bred person (the girl) and the down-to-earth peasants in the countryside, and (c) the confrontation between an idealist (the girl) and the dead weight of traditional society that cannot accommodate that realism. To a certain extend all three themes are present, but I would lean towards the third theme as the most interesting one. If there is any narrative arc in Secret Ballot, it traces the election official’s growing awareness of and reconciliation to the practical realities of life in the traditional Iranian countryside. This is a journey of the mind, and this is where the surrealistic elements have some traction.

The second issue of interest in Secret Ballot is the cinematic style of the film. Payami works in extremely long takes and long, distant camera compositions, during which the action is minimal and seemingly aimless. The film opens in longshot of a plane dropping a box by parachute at dawn and then presents a desolate beach that is guarded by two bored, uncommunicative soldiers. After eight minutes of the film, we are still only in the fourth shot of the film and still have no idea concerning where we are or what is inside the mysterious box that has fallen from the sky (it contains a ballot box, as it turns out). After twelve minutes a boat appears and drops off the young lady, and only after fifteen minutes since the beginning of the filme do we learn that she is going to supervise the local election process. Everything in long shot – what could be more distant from Kiarostami’s approach, which consists almost entirely of dialogue in medium shot composition? Yet there is something of a connection between the two, because of the slow disclosure of the narrative context and circumstances. In addition, both of them use non-professional actors, which introduces a slow awkward tempo to the acting, but also carries a certain refreshing authenticity to their interactions.

Though film acting is pretty rough, as one might expect from non-professional people, the natural performance of Nassim Abdi as the election agent has a certain magnetism that helps carry the film. This is the only feature film that she has appeared in, but from this exposure it would appear that she could have a future in this medium. In general, Payemi’s slow, languid cinematic style is very much aided by the contributions of his production team. He has an absolute top cinematographer (Farzad Jadat) and excellent sound editing (Yadollah Najafi and Massimiliano Normanno) and original music (Michael Galasso). This dreamy style hypnotises the viewer into an ethnographic contemplation, not only of life in Iran, but of life on this planet in general.

In fact the cinematic dreamworld that we enter into while we watch Secret Ballot is not just an intriguing feature of the film, but is in fact the key to the positive aspects of the film experience. It is almost a case of form over function, but not quite. We do not so much contemplate the situation from a mental distance, as we might with a Kiarostami film, but instead we find ourselves drawn in to that fundamentally different tempo of traditional life in this desolate region. We become so immersed in this strange bleak world and living according to its unfamiliar tempo that absurd moments and situations blend in smoothly with what is presumably normal. Ultimately, we are caught off guard when these odd moments arrive, and we are not initially aware of the distinction between the normal and the surreal. This is what gives the film its eery quality, drives the cinematic experience, and remains in our memory after the film is over. I am not really sure that Payemi deserves that much credit for this. What makes this film fascinating may perhaps be a lucky side effect of both fortuitous circumstances and the contributions of other key members of the production team, notably the cinematographer and the lead actress. Since filmmaking is a collaborative operation, and the film experience is finally dependent on the constructive perceptions of the viewer, attribution of auteurist credit is not always possible, anyway. The film exists by itself, awaiting the next viewer.

"Ali Santouri" - Dariush Mehrjui (2007)

Dariush Mehrjui, born in 1939, is to a certain extent the dean of modern Iranian filmmaking. He studied filmmaking at UCLA and returned to Iran to make Gaav (The Cow, 1969), a groundbreaking and symbolic film set in the Iranian rural region, which was received in the West with great acclaim. Since then he has somehow managed to continue making occasional films despite extreme difficulties with Iranian government interference. I have been told that Mehrjui relies on the support of his enthusiastic supporters, mostly students, who deposit money into his bank account so that he can complete his films. Ali Santouri (also known as Santouri, Santoori, and The Music Man), his most recent film, was completed in 2007 and has been released in the West, but banned in Iran.

The film is set in modern Iran and concerns the difficulties of a famous Iranian santour player. The santour is a classical Iranian instrument, somewhat like a zither, and it is used in contemporary pop music, as well as for classical Iranian music. The story covers the life of a popular santour player, mostly in flashbacks, and how his life fell apart due to drug addiction. It is worth remarking that in the Iranian drug culture “playing the santour” is a phrase used for shooting heroin. The time sequencing of the events presented on screen (the syuzhet) is rather complicated, since there are flashbacks within flashbacks, but the viewer is provided with enough cues to be more or less able to figure out where the depicted events are situated in the story.

The basic plot covers the life of a young man from a very wealthy, but traditional, family who has become an Iranian pop star through his santour playing. He meets, falls in love with and marries a beautiful young woman who is also an accomplished pianist. But his traditional family has demanded that he give up music and disowns him, and ultimately the government bans his music from public venues. Thereafter he can only perform at private functions to make a living, and when he does so he is often recompensed with alcohol and drugs instead of money. To make ends meet, his financial difficulties must be partially met by his wife giving piano performances, and soon her participation in these activities leads to her personal involvement with a violinist. Eventually the santour player sinks further into withdrawal, becomes violent with his wife (who then leaves home), and ultimately he find himself on the street as a homeless heroin junkie. At the end of the movie, a chance encounter with his estranged wife (who is now remarried) leads to his rescue from imminent death and offers a path to physical rehabilitation. He winds up a somewhat sad and shattered man, giving performances and teaching music inside the medical asylum where he had been committed.

The narrative line (the fabula) is essentially a one-way ticket to hell and downhill every step of the way. In particular, the continuous descent into ever-more-depressing drug addiction occupies much of the film and tends to weigh things down with gloom. The use of flashbacks provides some relief, though, because the santouri keeps reflecting on his earlier happy days with his wife. In these flashbacks the viewer is treated to extensive music performances, and these occasions are mostly joyous celebrations of love and music. In fact these sequences have a distinctly Bollywood flavour, and one is led to wonder what influence Indian cinema may have on the Iranian film scene.

Because of the difficulties of filmmaking in Iran, one marvels at the lengths to which filmmakers must go in order to complete their films. Santouri is shot mostly with handheld cameras, and one can’t be unaware of various seams in the filmmaking production values throughout the film. For example jump-cuts are frequent, and these are not there for artistic effect, but are more likely in place due to constraints in the production. In addition, the concert scenes are marred by a multimedia overlay of green-coloured lines that bounce around the screen in rhythm with the santour playing. This effect is an utter failure and serves only as an annoyance to one’s enjoyment of the film. Nevertheless the acting on the part of the two leading actors, Golshifteh Farahani (Boutique [2003], Bab'Aziz [2005], and Halfmoon [2006]) and Bahram Radan, both of whom are stars of the Iranian cinema scene, is extraordinary. One of the successes of the film is certainly the achieved chemistry between the two leads, who manage to convey an electric relationship while still operating within the strict constraints of government-imposed rules on behavior.

Overall, the film leaves me with the sense of a failed masterpiece. The long, gritty descent into drug addiction is perhaps too relentless, and some of the jump cuts jerk the viewer out of his or her involvement in the story. Still, there is something rather deliriously brilliant about both the joyous intensity of the music and the graphically depressing fall into addiction. Music expression, which is generally frowned on in traditional Iran, is depicted here as a savior, as an outlet of artistic expression in general, and this is conveyed in a romantic expressionistic way that lingers in the mind long after the film is over. I have seen this expressionistic tendency in two other Mehrjui films, Gaav and The Cycle, and it is the mark of most of the great films. This is why we go to the cinema.

"10" by Abbas Kiarostami (2002)

Abbas Kiarostami, who was born in 1940, has since the early 1990s become one of the darlings of Western film criticism and the recipient of extravagant and undeserved praise. This puts me on the side of Roger Ebert and in opposition to Kiarostami’s fanatical postmodernist admirers. In order to consider any film by Kiarostami, one first has to confront his auteur status and ponder why he is so loved by the intellectual film critic elite. Certainly his directorial style is extremely minimalist – he is the Kazimir Malevich of filmmaking. Operating with a minimum of camera setups, his films mostly consist of a few extremely long single-shot takes of someone talking about his or her personal situation. The actors appear to be authentic, non-professional individuals drawn from real Iranian society and discussing their own personal circumstances. As such, watching a Kiarostami film is somewhat akin to watching a cinema verite documentary, rather than a feature film. There appears to be a flamboyantly self-conscious attempt to assert that the viewer is not being “manipulated” by traditional filmmaking narrative techniques. This may make Kiarostami attractive to postmodernist intellectuals who wish to transcend the boundaries of traditional narrative, but by eschewing most traditional film narrative, Kiarostami also abandons much of what is attractive about cinema. There are other intellectual factors that probably account for some of his popularity. The fact that he is Iranian is certainly significant, because the Western public is fascinated about how ordinary people can live in what appears to be such a restrictive society. In addition, Kiarostomai’s films, like those of other Iranian filmmakers of his generation, often feature women and issues associated with being a woman in Iran. The point is that Kiarostami’s films must be viewed from an intellectual perspective in order to be appreciated, and this can seem to be somewhat paradoxical in view of his apparent attempt at “direct” (hence, by implication, more “authentic”) filmmaking.

10 (Ten) is perhaps the quintessential Kiarostami film, because it has taken his minimalist tendencies to an extreme. It is set entirely inside an automobile and has only two camera setups: one directed towards the driver and the other directed towards the passenger in the front seat. The film comprises ten dialogues between a young nameless woman and various people, mostly other women, in her life. Thus the film is exclusively a set of medium close-ups, and this gives the film a certain spare intensity. Kiarostami, himself, was not even present when the camera shots were taken, thereby maximising his direct cinema credentials – his physical absence thereby presumably shielding him from the charge that he could manipulate (and thereby make artificial) the performances. Instead, he set his amateur actors, driver and passengers, off into the Tehran traffic with the camera running. After collecting 23 hours of footage, he selected what he wanted in order to produce a 90-minute film.

The driver’s conversational partners are her approximately 10-year-old son, her sister, another woman friend, and three strangers to whom she has offered a lift: an old woman, a younger single woman, and a prostitute. All of the discussions touch on the roles and concerns that women have in Iranian life. The prostitute is not shown at all in the film; we only see the driver’s side of that conversation. Since the prostitute’s comments about her lifestyle are highly provocative for the current Iranian regime, one wonders if her invisibility was maintained in order to protect the “actress” from possible retaliation on the part of fanatics after the film was released.

The initial conversation, which is the longest one, is with her son, and this one is perhaps most crucial to whatever meaning the film may have. In the conversation we learn that the parents have divorced and that the son is highly critical of his mother for leaving his father in order to build an independent life for herself. Thus the mother is established as an “independent” woman, a provocative and difficult role in Iran.

But however a film may appear to abandon narrative, the film must still have an interesting narrative that can be mentally constructed by the viewer in order to be successful. 10 does have something of a slim, implicit narrative, and it is here that the film manages to appeal. The women in the film are all somewhat cut off from avenues by which they can gain fulfilment. The driver, in particular, wants to have a meaningful relationship with her son, but their continual arguments throughout the film reveal a huge gap in their views of the world: the son’s expectations of the role his mother should play are in stark contrast to her own views that people should be accepted as meaningful individuals and not just role-players. She stubbornly sticks to her principles throughout the film, but the final dialogues (with her lovelorn friend, with another woman passenger whose fiancé has abandoned her, and with her son) all exhibit failure. The final dialogue with the son has an air of finality and defeat, and the woman driver, though still determined, for the first time displays a hint of hopelessness. The narrative, such as it is, is all downhill and one of despair, not of hope.

Certainly Kiarostami should rank considerably below other leading Iranian filmmakers Panahi, Merhjui, and Majidi, but there is something in his films that does seep through. If he is over-praised and probably appreciated for the wrong reasons, he must not be entirely overlooked, and 10, while less successful than his Through the Olive Trees (Zire Darakhatan Aeyton, 1994), is still worth seeing.

Iranian Films

In the next few weeks I will be posting some reviews and commentary on Iranian films that have appeared in the last few years. The focus will be on the Iranian "new wave" that has attracted attention in international circles.