"The Deserted Station" - Alireza Raisian (2002)

Like a number of other contemporary Iranian works, The Deserted Station (Istgah-Matrouk, 2002), a film directed by Alireza Raisian, presents mundane events and circumstances that manage to evoke larger themes concerning the lives of the characters.  Reminiscent of earlier Italian films such as those by Michelangelo Antonioni, these Iranian films often involve an educated, urbanized protagonist for whom an encounter with ordinary people in the countryside elicits philosophical introspection about life's purposes.

In the case of The Deserted Station, the story concerns a young married couple driving across eastern Iran on their way to making a devotional visit to the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad.  The film proceeds at a leisurely pace to acclimate the viewer to the slow pace and sense of isolation of the Iranian desert. In fact for the film's first six minutes, one only sees images of the desert road and the driver, who is always shown in a tight camera frame so that one can’t be sure if he there is anyone else in the car. Eventually one is able to see that there is a passenger, the driver's wife, who though never named, turns out to be the story's real protagonist. 

As they drive through the barren landscape of Semnan province during the early morning hours, the driver Mahmood, who is a professional photographer, wanders off the main road in pursuit of picturesque images to capture with his camera.  When a deer surprisingly bolts in front of their car on the road, Mahmood’s wild swerve to avoid hitting it causes a mechanical break down.  Suddenly in this desolate landscape they are in need of a repairman.  It turns out that the only evidence of nearby human habitation is a tiny mud-brick community inhabited almost exclusively by women and children.  The men of the area, we are told, have all gone off to find work in other locations, and there is now just one remaining able-bodied male: a solitary local herder, Feizollah, who somehow manages to embody most of the traditional male-supplied services that are needed in the village.  Not only is Feizollah the local handyman, he is also the only literate person, which means that if the fatherless children in the community are to get any education, he must be their teacher.

Feizollah tells Mahmood that he can repair their car, but the two of them will need to travel by motorcycle to the regional service town in order to buy a spare part.  This will take most of the day, so that in the meantime, Mahmood’s wife will have to look after the school children while the two men are gone.  We will eventually see that here are about twenty children of various ages in Feizollah’s school, about 80% of whom are boys – girls in this village apparently tend to get married off to other villages at a very early age.  Mahmood’s wife is hesitant she can take over the class so easily, but Mahmood assures her that she can do it and reminds her that she has taught classes before.

The key element underlying this narrative, which is something that takes some time to make itself fully evident, is that Mahmood’s wife is pregnant and that her two previous pregnancies ended as stillbirths.  She is consequently tormented by the traditional view that she cannot be a complete woman until she has become a mother, and her trip to Mashhad is evidently being undertaken in order to carry out religious rituals and to pray for the birth of a healthy baby.  So her encounters with the village children, who are largely parentless, naturally invoke her motherly instincts, what role she can play, and her concerns about what fate may have in store for these children.

The rest of the film meanders along in its own desultory fashion showing various classroom scenes with the children, which are intercut with scenes of Mahmood and Feizollah discussing aspects of the lifestyle of the region while riding together on the motorcycle across the desert.  This motorcycle conversation is very reminiscent of a similar scene in Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), which is not so surprising since The Deserted Station is based on a Kiarostami story, and he is also credited, along with Kambuzia Partovi (Café Transit, aka Border Café, 2005), for the script of The Deserted Station.  Another cinematic homage may have been associated with that of the elderly illiterate railroad switchman, who was the only other male besides Feizollah in the village.  The man’s stubborn repetitions a minimalist set of actions and phrases evoked the similar behaviour of the switchman of an earlier well-known (and over-praised) Iranian film, Still Life (Tabiate Bijan, 1974).

Gradually a philosophical metaphor begins to take shape.  This little village of parentless children becomes a microcosm for the great mass of humanity who seek to know what is “out there” and important.  The village teacher Feizollah is a practical man and at his own expense has devoted himself to teaching these children about the outside world.  He is understood to be knowledgeable concerning many things, and for a day at least, Mahmood’s wife has become his surrogate.  For these children, Feizollah, and now Mahmood's wife, are almost celestial beings who can provide guidance for their following.  But what should that guidance be?  In fact Mahmood’s wife knows quite a bit about the outside world that she could tell these children, but she begins to see that the some of the truly important aspects of life are right in front of us – right here and right now.  There is a scene where she is following Feizollah’s lesson plan and instructing the children about Christopher Columbus’s discovery of a new continent, facts which the children try to memorize.  But we have to ask ourselves, what can these children really understand about another continent when they know very little about even the next town?  Aren't there more essential things for them learn?

There are further metaphors evoked when the children run to a railroad siding where some abandoned passenger cars are rusting away – the "deserted station". They use the train cars for a purpose other than for transport – they begin playing a game of hide and seek. Seeing this, Mahmood’s wife becomes pensive as she wonders perhaps where the "train of life" is taking all of them.  One of the older boys wants to run away from the village in order to learn where those trains he sees, which always pass by their village without stopping, are going.  Mahmood’s wife understands his longing to know about ultimate destinations, and yet she also knows that this is something that perhaps can never be really known.  Thus she is torn: she wants to help these children, but how?  She can only comfort them and try to imbue in them more down-to-earth truths, such as that they should support each other and not tease anyone among them who is afraid.
There are some other rather oblique socio-cultural references in the film that were not entirely clear to me, but that may suggest social commentary:
  • The appearance of the deer in the desert road was a highly unlikely and somewhat miraculous event for that region of Iran.  The matter-of-fact Feizollah seemed to have thought that such an appearance must have been illusion.  Did this have symbolic connotations?   
  • While on their motorcycle ride, Feizollah discusses his unsuccessful attempt to be elected to the Iranian parliament.  There may be some social commentary about the Iranian political process embedded in their remarks.
  • Also during their motorcycle trip, Mahmood remarks that on several occasions that day he has seen women being carted away on trucks by soldiers.  Feizollah seems oblivious to these sightings.  I am not sure what this discussion might mean other than to remind us that women in the Iranian countryside live very circumscribed lives.
Rather than resolve these issues at the end, The Deserted Station concludes by metaphorically presenting this state of hesitation and doubt. This ending seems quite artificial, but it is smoothed over by the sensitive dramatic portrayal on the part of Leila Hatami (Leila, 1996; Low Heights, 2002; A Separation”, 2011) as Mahmood’s wife, who generally sustains an appropriate contemplative mood throughout the film. In addition the music by Peyman Yazdian (The Wind Will Carry Us, 1999; The Wind Carpet, 2003; Crimson Gold, 2003; Friday's Soldiers, 2003; Fireworks Wednesday, 2006) is, as usual, effective in support of the film's reflective atmosphere.

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