"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.

1 comment:

HIREN DAVE said...

I have heard a lot about this Iranian film director- Majid Majidi from many universal film lovers & after watching it I will try to catch his next as soon as possible. He impressed me with his natural simplicity of story telling (the theme) expressing human emotions as realistic as possible. It’s story of an Iranian boy who migrated to other town to play his responsibility for the family after his father’s untimely death & returns home with gifts & money for his mother & sisters. At his return he faced disconcerting reality: his mother remarried with a police man. He refused to accept his new father & new home. Under which circumstances director brought them together in the end is a thing to watch & not write. Film has just four main characters & none of them are professionally trained one but he managed to fix them so goddamn natural, grasping their subtle & intense universal emotions. My favorite moment is its end which is so poetical especially when a photograph slips so naturally into the stream to its right direction…that your eyes can’t believe it’s the end. The film clicks to me especially with its universality of theme depicting father-son relationship, emotional bonding in distress which reminds it viewer that world is so large yet so small if you pick the right emotion.
A movie made with 100% Heart & Soul.
Must 4 all meaningful cinema lovers.