"Hamoun" - Dariush Mehrjui (1990)

Hamoun, written and directed by one of the great Iranian filmmakers, Dariush Mehrjui, is a film that would probably affect Iranian and Western viewers in quite different ways. It tells the story of Hamid Hamoun, a thirty-ish intellectual of the Iranian upper middle class, who at the beginning of the film is shocked to learn that his wife is suing him for divorce and intends to acquire all their possessions. This sets off a downward-spiralling midlife crisis that we follow through the rest of the film, as we watch Hamid try to find a meaning for his existence. The film is usually described as a comedy, but just as I have remarked in connection with Secret Ballot, I do not consider the film to be a typical comedy, although it is riddled with absurd situations, satirical characterisations, and outlandish twists. In 1997 Iranian critics voted Hamoun to be the greatest Iranian film ever made, supplanting Mehrjui’s Gaav (The Cow, 1969) from the top position.

Hamoun has affinities with Mehrjui’s recent film, Ali Santouri (2007), since both focus on the descending circumstances of self-obsessed protagonists, and both extensively feature flashbacks back to happier times prior to the beginning of the film. These flashbacks serve both to focus on the inner reflections of the protagonist and to punctuate the generally unhappy narrative line with lighter moments. In addition to the flashbacks, however, Hamoun also features surreal, absurdist dream sequences (the film starts off with one), and these sequences are the most flamboyant and memorable aspects of the film.

The surrealistic elements provide clues to the main themes of the Hamoun. Hamid is an existentialist hero, well-versed with the major works of Western European existentialism from the 1950s and 60s. Although he is a middle manager of an import/export company, Hamid really wants to be an intellectual and is working on a PhD thesis concerning Abraham’s sacrifice that was depicted in the Bible and was the major theme of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. In fact Hamid is several times seen walking around his apartment with a copy of Fear and Trembling. References are also made to J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, as well as Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. These books are undoubtedly of interest to Mehrjui, since his 1995 film, Pari, is an unauthorised adaptation of Franny and Zooey, and one can presume that Hamoun contains elements of autobiographical self-parody (Mehrjui, himself, majored in philosophy at UCLA).

Post-war European culture featured a wide range of novels and films describing existentialist self-examination and doubt, such as Malle’s The Fire Within and Bergman’s works of this period. But by the early 1970s, there had appeared a number of “revisionist” works that satirised the tendencies towards self-indulgence and self-pity that were lurking in those earlier works. In fiction writing there was the work of Saul Bellow (Herzog) and J. P. Dunleavy. In cinema not only do we have Godard’s work, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), 8-½ (1963), and Giulietta degli Spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits, 1965), but there are also Woody Allen’s films, notably Manhattan (1979), in which a failed, self-pitying writer, also faces divorce, consults psychiatrists, and grapples with the meaninglessness of his life. This is the revisionist genre to which Hamoun belongs, and one could say that some of the dream sequences appear to be almost explicit homages to Fellini. But Hamoun carries this self-criticism to even more absurd extremes. Hamid’s self-obsession leads him continually to forget what his immediate intentions are, even when they are bent on self-destruction; he is constantly distracted by some new observation that leads him to cease what he was doing and reflect on his lost innocence. There are times when he intends to murder his wife with a rifle, and other times when he wishes to commit suicide by jumping off a cliff, burying himself in a grave, or drowning himself in the ocean. In all of these pursuits, he seems impulsive and distracted, more driven by frustration than conscious plan. This is the general context in which a Western educated viewer would see Hamoun, but Iranian nuances might be lost.

An Iranian (and remember that Iranian critics revere this film) would see additional aspects, such as the fact that Hamid is clean-shaven and operates in upper-class, Westernised circles -- seen as particularly elitest, if not downright decadent, in conservative, post-revolutionary Iran. He doesn’t seem particularly concerned about the likely separation from his 5-year-old son, but is more troubled by his inability to complete his PhD. He takes for granted his almost absolute right in an Islamic society to deny his wife a divorce. His mysterious and only occasionally seen (in flashbacks) spiritual master, Ali, represents something of a dream of spiritual tranquillity, perhaps of Sufism, that is always out of reach and perhaps impossible to define. Is this further satirising of elitest, intellectual spiritulality in Iran? All of these things would be seen in the Iranian context, which would highlight Hamid’s separation from the concerns of the real world and make him appear even more ridiculous. There are also occasional remarks in the film about society that would resonate with audiences. When Hamid’s wife Mahshid complains to her psychiatrist that Hamid bullies her, the psychiatrist dismisses her by remarking that it is common to all Iranian men to tyrannise their wives. Mahshid, by the way, though married to the self-obsessed Hamid, is not a character with whom one sympathises. She is shown to be even more of an egotist than Hamid. In fact because of her extravagant foolishness and fatuous artistic endeavours (at least as seen through the subjective eye of Hamid), one tends to sympathise more with Hamid’s plight than with hers. Perhaps this situation provides an insight as to why Mehrjui's later Ali Santouri is ultimately more successful than Hamoun. In Hamoun, Hamid is perpetually vicitimised by unsympathetic outsiders and exists inside an emotional vacuum; he has no truly meaningful relationships. The one possibly interesting relationship, with his guru Ali, is perhaps more imaginary than real and may be ultimately solipsistic. There is no emotional give-and-take across character relationships in the film, and we are left only with Hamid's intellectual emptiness ('hamoun' means 'desert' in English) and longing for fullfilment. In Ali Santouri, on the other hand, the relationship between the two principals sets off sparks and is believably seductive. Moreover, Ali Santouri's music, which is brilliantly compelling and integrally a part of the narrative, is superior to that of Hamoun.

A few remarks are in order about Mehrjui’s cinematic style. The film is shot with many short-duration shots, which gives it a nervous, energetic dynamic. Many of the shots, as with Ali Santouri, are hand-held, and there are numerous zoom shots. In addition, there are a number of jarring jump-cuts, which detract somewhat from one's engagement with the film. Overall, the brisk pace of the action affords a large number of episodes, which must have entailed an astonishing number of camera setups. As with some of Fellini’s films, many of these episodes add to the general effect, but are not uniquely essential to the story – they could have been omitted, and others added, without the viewer noticing much difference. The soundtrack background is often quite dead and lacks the ambient noise that gives one a sense of presence. In addition, the soundtrack is overlayed with modern organ music (said to be inspired by Bach). The combination of the soundtrack music and the lack of ambient sounds tends to alienate the viewer from the reality of the situation, which though it may have been the intention of Mehjui, is, I think, detrimental to the viewing experience.

At the end of the film, astonishingly, just as Hamid is finally about to succeed in killing himself by drowning, Ali, his elusive spiritual master, appears out of nowhere, has him pulled out of the water, and saves him. It is an epiphany! Hamid, as he was drowning, had been dreaming of an imaginary fantasy world in which all his dreams come true. Instead, he has been brought back to the real world (with all its problems) and rescued from a "sea of confusion". Maybe this time he can engage it authentically. Despite all the despair in the film, there is this final hopeful image of Hamid coming back to life. Or is that last scene just another dream?
★★½

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