Iranian films celebrated at the MFA
Current consideration of Iran in this country is likely to revolve around words or phrases such as "nuclear power," "embargo," "spies," or "Straight of Hormuz;" but this week the MFA makes its testimony that "cinema" should be, if not central, at least included in our discourse about Iran. To fans of quality international cinema, it is no secret that Iran produces some amazing work; the Boston Festival of Films from Iran, which runs through January 29, provides the opportunity for Bostonians to discover new films that are currently touring the international festivals as well as gems from master Abbas Kiarostami.
In addition to a rare chance to see some of Kiarostami’s earlier films, the festival presents two films from filmmakers (Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof) who have been banned from working in Iran for creating work deemed perfidious by the Islamic republic. Most notably, Jafar Panahi’s "This is Not a Film" was created under house arrest and was snuck out of the country. Also, if you missed provocative "Circumstance" during its theatrical run, this is a second chance to take in a much-talked about film of lesbian interest.
"Mourning" (to be screened on January 27 and 29) begins in darkness. An altercation between wife and husband that is truncated and decontextualized serves as a dramatic opening scene to new director, Morteza Farshbaf’s, road trip tale of grief, argument, and uncertainty (emotional and automotive). A large amount of the drama unfolds in the ordinary sedan occupied by the young Arshia, whose parents have just died in a car accident (following the opening altercation) and Kamran and Sharareh, a middle-aged deaf couple who are taking Arshia to the funeral of his parents.
At a glance, the film seems simple- discussions on the road, a few minor road and car-related obstacles, numerous pee-breaks to break up the discussions, and a magnificently inconclusive ending. No glamor, no high drama, no complex plot, no politics. The reason this film resonates is the well of downtrodden complications that it hints at. As in the titular condition, most of the drama happens off screen and is alluded to or is felt in reverberations as these characters make their way through a desolate Iranian landscape.
Arshia sometimes exists in backseat oblivion, with headphones on, but other times he watches carefully as the couple use sign language punctuated with expressive utterances to work through the emotional and practical concerns that come along with being at least temporary guardians of their freshly orphaned nephew.
The central problem is that Kamran wants to adopt Arshia and finally be a parent, whereas Sharareh feels adamant that they are not fit to raise the boy. This discord brings up a whole backstory related to the couple’s indecision about whether or not to pursue a risky pregnancy (would the child be deaf?) years ago. It is apparent that not only do these two possess the intimacy and caring expected from a married couple, but also that there is considerable subterranean resentment and likely unaccounted for archives of miscommunication that weaken their bond. Interestingly, there are moments in which it seems they hardly know each other at all, that these topics have not even been breached during their years together.
It becomes clear that Arshia understands sign language during a scene in which the mechanic set with the task of fixing the couple’s car asks him to translate what they are saying to each other while he waits; so one has to wonder what he makes of the couple’s candid discussion of his parents’ death, their feelings towards him, and their plans. It seems implausible that they wouldn’t know about his knowledge of sign language or that they wouldn’t consider the possibility, but perhaps they are so in need of airing these thoughts that it doesn’t matter. The truth must come out.
Intermingled with a patient eye for the mundane, scattered encounters with strangers, and quietly dramatic landscape, the emotions that arise in the main characters take on a poignancy that leaves one invested in the troubled past and conflicted future of these ordinary folks.
"Circumstance" (screening on January 25 and available on DVD), by Iranian-American newcomer Maryam Keshavarz, is a completely different sort of cinematic treat. Sumptuous, brazenly engaged with the Iranian zeitgeist, and fuelled by scintillating teenage rebellion, this story of best friends making the most of life in defiance of the will of the mullahs delivers a passionate story that balances sex and insouciance with familial tension and the travesty of societal repression.
Atafeh and Shireen are typical sixteen year old girls except that their sisterly bond is not platonic and that they make targets of themselves by being free spirits in a society rife with strictures and harsh punishments. Shireen, who is deemed of questionable character by a female school official in an early scene, is at a disadvantage because of her class and because her deceased parents were writers well known for their mutinous contributions. Atafeh is largely sheltered by the power and wealth of her family, but how far can her father protect her when she comes head to head with the morality police?
The film begins with the joyous side of things: uninhibited dancing, flirtation, and underground parties (Atafeh providing the passcode, "We are here for the sewing class," allows them entry to a fashionable, hedonistic party). It is established that Atafeh is the more sexually aggressive one, Shireen slightly more timid; although, as the story progresses, this distinction diminishes without a cliché ’shy girl outgrowing her shell’ storyline. Both are gorgeous, fierce, and determined to express themselves freely. In a later scene, they brashly remove their hijabs and clothes to go swimming in the sea. The lack of consequence in this scene does not continue later when they are jamming to music, speeding down a Tehran boulevard. On a side note, there are numerous scenes of the friends lip-synching or otherwise energized and bonded by music, and the infectious vivacity conveyed in these scenes, which could be unremarkable or insipid in a film more reliant on cliché, is a minor testament to the energy and charisma that both actresses bring to the film.
For Atafeh, life is complicated by the fact that the pernicious force of fundamentalism is made domestic and painfully personal when her formerly wayward older brother, Mehran, returns home with a newfound embrace of Islam. The film does well to suggest his inner conflict without trying to tackle it head on. He denounces his past as a trained musician but still enjoys sharing the ivory keys with his sis. The dark side of his frame goes largely unnoticed until he refuses to eat the chicken breast that Atafeh has touched. In a poignant moment, her jocular smile fades as she realizes that he truly finds her sinful and unclean. Mehran lends some ambivalence and suspense to the story, as he is a hip, sensitive lad and an ominous guardian who resorts to surveillance to monitor the activities of his godless family.
On the lighthearted side of the story, Shireen’s gay cousin visiting from the US, Hossein, provides a different perspective. In a scene in which they peruse an illegal record shop hidden behind a barber shop, the politicized Hossein is incredulous that they don’t seem more invested in changing their circumstances and hilariously suggests that they dub "Milk," about the famed gay rights activist/politician, in Persian and disseminate it to the Iranian masses (more comical is the scene of their follow through on this idea).
Though the film, which won the audience award at Sundance last year, earns its LGBT classification and should be appreciated by queer viewers of all stripes, it is foremost an Iranian film, albeit one filmed in Beirut, Lebanon because of its audacity of critique. It’s a stunning debut, and here’s hoping Keshavarz continues making such cleverly crafted films that elucidate and pulsate in a rhythm that is endlessly fun to follow.
For a complete list of films being screened as part of the MFA’s The Boston Festival of Films From Iran, visit the MFA website.