MFA Brings Iran Best Films to Boston
In 2011, Iranian cinema leapt onto American consciousness thanks to Oscar-winning drama "A Separation." This moment of cinematic brilliance was no anomaly, though, and the Museum of Fine Arts is here to remind us that world-class films are regularly coming out of Iran.
Their annual series, The Boston Festival of Films from Iran, continues through January 31, 2013.
Below are three upcoming films from the series that represent the artistry and breadth of Iranian cinema.
The Last Step
Ali Mosaffa’s drama stars Leila Hatami (from "A Separation") as Leili, an actress alternately shown as bereaved and in a conflicted marriage. A complexly structured drama, it is rewarding if you follow carefully all the leaps through time and place. The film opens with Leili trying unsuccessfully to stifle laughter as she delivers the line, "I cannot even recall your face. It’s as if you never existed." This is all the more unsettling when we learn that her husband has very recently died (it is questionable whether she should be working so soon after). Soon, we are introduced to the ghost of her husband, Koshrow, who promises to elucidate the circumstances surrounding his death.
The film replays scenes revealing a little bit more each time. For example, after a few permutations of the scene in which Leili is laughing on set, it is suggested that Koshrow’s ghost has implanted this urge in her. We also revisit elements such as Koshrow’s curious- and seemingly reckless- skateboarding, a confrontation between the couple in the kitchen in which she smacks him, and the titular last step, which is a failure of architectural design on his part. These may or may not have something to do with Koshrow’s mysterious death. Adding to the uncertainty is his doctor, Amin’s, (also a family friend) false diagnosis of cancer to Kroshow. Could this have somehow played a role in his accident? Unlike "A Separation," with which it shares certain elements, this is not a film steeped in emotional anguish. It is one of dramatic intrigue in which the reward comes from the cleverness of its crafting.
Whereas the mysteriousness in "The Last Step" has to do with Koshrow’s death, in Modest Reception the mystery is about the hordes of money that main characters, Leyla and Kaveh, have in numbered plastic bags in the back of their Lexus SUV. It is never clear why they are systematically distributing huge sums of cash in a remote mountainous region of Iran, but what becomes apparent quickly is that this ostensible charity comes at a price. This is a first-class black comedy that seems to be commenting on the absurd structure with which charitable organizations function - or perhaps on the general cluelessness of the privileged in relating to the working class.
From the opening scene in which Leyla and Kaveh pretend to be a bickering couple while pushing around an armed guard, it is evident that they are entitled and devious. After they leave the guard in the dust, with a stash of cash, matters get more and more uncomfortable. The first object of charity we meet is an old man running a ramshackle roadside market. He is utterly confounded by their offering, insisting that he makes a good living and is in no need of a handout. He kindly agrees to be photographed with Leyla and the bag of cash (apparently a required part of their process) but insists they take it on to someone who really needs it. The cash-masters are confounded, in turn, and lose their patience with the man.
As they proceed down a winding road through the stunning mountainous landscape, their cruelty comes to the forefront. More than philanthropists, this Tehran couple comes to seem like misanthropes hell bent on humiliating simple country folk. In one instance, Kaveh pulls two truck drivers off the road to tell them they have won the lottery, only to add the caveat that they have to give up their job (drop the delivery) in order to claim the money. When one of them refuses, his elation that he can finally afford to get married aborted by Kaveh’s stipulation, Kaveh cruelly pits them against each other. Though it’s never clear what is driving Kaveh’s relentless morbid pleasure in belittling these men or how Leyla arrives at a desire to temper his tyrancy, there is great delight to be derived from the painful encounters on this route.
The Iran Job
One may not expect a documentary set in Iran to be lighter fare, but The Iran Job, about an American basketball player who accepts an assignment in Shiraz, is filled with uplifting and humorous moments. Of course, it’s not all fun and games for Kevin Sheppard or his new Iranian friends, but it is highly amusing watching Kevin adapt to his new environment - and to witness how people respond to him both on the fledgling team and in various places such as the stores he frequents.
This film, which is by no means only of interest to basketball fans, is an exceedingly successful culture shock doc. Kevin has to get used to sneaking his female friends in and out of his home and to only having beer when he manages to receive it covertly by mail. He makes for a great character because he is boisterous and warm-hearted, but he also has a fiery temper on the basketball court (at one point he makes national news for kicking a garbage can in frustration following a defeat).
Though he is not a political man, he gradually becomes invested in the struggle that is going on around him. When a young woman is killed during the protests spurred by Ahmadinejad’s re-election, he reflects that it could have been one of the lovely women to whom he has grown close.
As he tells the ladies the first time they visit the flat he shares with a Serbian player, the filmmakers stay on him constantly. And it pays off. The ladies are rightfully loath at first to remove their headscarf because of the camera, but they soon relax, later opining about the woes of modern life in Iran and even partaking in beer.
The Iran Job screens January 25, 2013 @ 7:30 pm & January 26, 2013 @ 1:00 pm; The Last Step screens January 26, 2013 @ 3:00 pm & January 27, 2013, 1:00 pm; A Modest Reception screens January 30 & 31, 2013 @ 7:00 pm. For more information about the The Boston Festival of Films From Iran, visit the Museum of Fine Arts website.