Son-Mother (Pesar-Madar, Iran-Czech Republic, 2019) – CIFF2

Life at the bottom

 Having recently posted about two Iranian films by ex-pat filmmakers, it’s good to see one made in the country itself though it’s doubtful whether it will be screened there. It’s directed by feminist Mahnaz Mohammad who has been imprisoned for her feminist campaigning but bravely hasn’t let that subdue her in this her first feature which is written by Mohammad Rasoulof. It concerns Leila (Raha Khodayari), a factory worker and single mother trying to make ends meet in a dysfunctional society. Leila’s problem is she’s being courted by widower Mr. Kazem (Reza Behboodi) which leads to gossip amongst her workmates that is predictably misogynist.

In addition, economic pressures on the factory, no doubt enhanced by America’s Trumpist sanctions, mean workers are being laid off and are fearful of their position. Leila’s failure to join in a protest further alienates her colleagues from her. She has two children to look after and is estranged from her family so has no support.

The film is in two parts: ‘Son’ and ‘Mother’. Slightly perversely the titles refer to the opposite points-of-view; the first part chronicles Leila’s travails whilst the second follows the son, Amir (Mahan Nasiri), who has to deal with the consequences of not being able to join his mother with Mr. Kazem due to social mores. He’s about 10-years old and his soulful face speaks volumes as he tries to cope as best he can. Presumably the titles are emphasising the characters’ preoccupations.

In a repressive society it is of no surprise that everyone is looking out for themselves hence neighbourliness is in short supply; this was also evident in Under the ShadowTurning ‘the people’ against one another, divide and rule, makes tyranny easier; this is one of Trump’s modus operandi. Iran has been vilified, not entirely without reason, since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and yet has continued to produce some marvellous films. Under repression the urge to speak out by artists is often strongest and, of course they have much to say about misfortune. In western democracies only minorities are obviously exploited and many believe even that isn’t the case.

Ashkan Ashkani’s cinematography captures the bleak cityscape and the director’s documentary background is evident in the social realist mise en scene. When she was unable to attend Cannes in 2011 Costa-Gavras read a letter she sent, stating: “I am a woman, I am a filmmaker, two sufficient grounds to be guilty in this country.” Hopefully she’ll have more opportunities to speak as she has plenty to say. It’s available here.

 

Under the Shadow (UK-Jordan-Qatar-Iran, 2016)

Under seige

This was the UK’s foreign language entry to the Oscars but, like the recently posted Tehran Taboo, is essentially an Iranian film made by ex-pats; it couldn’t have been done in Iran. It was writer-director Babak Anvari’s debut and it hits the sweet spot of a horror film that scares whilst emotionally engaging the audience. Narges Rashidi plays Shideh whose medical studies were curtailed by the Islamic Revolution in 1979 because she was left wing; it should be noted that the western-backed Shah who was toppled would also not have been sympathetic toward her. She’s forced to be a housewife rather than emulating her mother, who has recently died. She has a daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), who’s already apparently seeing things when the film starts; her husband is conscripted to a frontline hospital early in the film and Iraq starts sending missiles to bomb Tehran. It’s a fraught situation and Anvari skilfully cranks up the fear subtly treading the tightrope as to whether the djinn is real or a figment of stressed imaginations.

It’s well into the film when the shocks start arriving and reminded me of Dark Water (Honogurai mizu no soko kara, Japan, 2002) in the slow build up and where the building itself apparently becomes a threat. Understandably Shideh’s neighbours start leaving after an unexploded missile embeds itself in the roof leaving mother and daughter to fight amongst themselves; as in The Babadook (Australia-Canada, 2014) Shideh’s daughter is unhappy with the parenting she’s receiving. According to Kermode’s review, Anvari cites Polanski’s The Tenant (France-US, 1976) as an influence and the war setting with children reminds me of The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo, Mexico-Spain) by Guillermo del Toro. However, there’s little sense that Under the Shadow is derivative because of its social context: the repressive version of Islam in wartime. In one scene, when mother and daughter flee into the night, they are arrested because Shideh isn’t wearing a chador. The chador, incidentally, is also also representative of the djinn emphasising how the evil spirit is repression of women.

There are, by necessity, other horror tropes but Anvari and editor Chris Barwell hit their marks brilliantly and I was leaping and yelping around the sofa a few times. The director went on to make Wounds which I’ll have to catch up on.

 

Tehran Taboo (Germany-Austria, 2017)

On the margins in Tehran

Directed and co-written (with Grit Kienzlen) by Ali Soozandeh, this is a startling representation of Tehran from the perspective of a prostitute. Startling because it is impossible for films made in Iran to show such things; Soozandeh emigrated to Germany over 20 years ago. In the 1990s Iranian cinema produced a ‘new wave’ of films with directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, the Makhmalbaf family and Jafar Panahi that were ‘validated’ by western criticism. Even in these films censorship meant that it was impossible to represent the earthier side of human life, if the directors had wished to do so directly. So the films are a bit like mid-20th century British cinema, exemplified by Brief Encounter (1945), where the only stiff things in the narrative are lips. Hence seeing Tehran Taboo is something of a shock especially as the first scene shows a prostitute attempting to give a blow-job in the front seat of a car whilst her five-year-old son is sitting in the back.

The woman, Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh), is the character around which three narratives are woven: her attempts to look after her boy; a neighbour’s wife stifled by Islamic orthodoxy; a young would-be musician being conned into providing proof of virginity after a one-night stand. If the narrative around Pari seems to contradict her actions described in the first paragraph it is a tribute to the film that we understand that she has no choice but to do what she does. The hypocrisy of the ruling clerics is laid bare as is the stifling patriarchy that many women suffocate under.

As can be seen from the image, the film is rotoscoped: live action film is rendered as animation. Soozandeh explained he chose this method as he couldn’t film in Tehran and didn’t want to fake the city by shooting in Jordan. Hence, the animation’s lack of photo realism ensures that the representation of the setting is not compromised as it’s clearly not realist. The impact on the spectator is not unlike that of Waltz with Bashir, another serious rotoscoped film. However, unlike in the earlier film where the visuals conveyed the dreamlike memories of the protagonist, here it is obviously reality that is being rendered. The impact of this is to emphasise we are seeing what ‘shouldn’t’ (at least as defined by the censors in Iran) be seen: it’s both unreal and real. ‘Unreal’ because it is animated; ‘real’ because no doubt that such events depicted in the film happen.

This was Soozandeh’s debut feature; I look forward to the next one.

Taste of Cherry (Ta’m e guilass , Iran-France, 1997)

Let me out!

The Favourite continues to be a favourite with critics and audiences (in the UK at least) and I thought it was terrible. The winner of Cannes film festival’s Palme d’Or should be a guarantor of quality but (for me) Abbas Kiarostami’s joint winner is an unfunny joke of a movie (The Guardian’s Bradshaw places it as his second best winner).

The film’s narrative, a man (Homayoun Ershadi) is on the verge of suicide, is certainly not funny and he trails around the outskirts of Tehran looking for someone to bury him. The rather interminable driving around asking strangers to help him doesn’t bother me and some of the performances are excellent; particularly the young soldier played by, like most of the cast, an amateur. Apparently when the car’s passengers are being filmed the driver was Kiarostami himself and much of the film is improvised.

A treatise on the meaning of life is fair game for an arthouse film and I’m not necessarily expecting any particularly profound answer but when you find yourself wishing the protagonist would hurry up and do himself in something has gone seriously awry. Possibly my critical faculties have gone wonky; due to illness I’ve already seen 24 films this year including the five-hour plus Happy Hour. However, I’m not alone in thinking this film is a betrayal of the contract between filmmaker and audience – which I believe should be one of ‘good faith’. The ‘betrayal’ here is that Kiarostami seems to me to be trying to conjure a film out of nothing and even though he fails to do so he still takes it to Cannes. His appearance at the festival was in doubt until the last moment because the Iranian authorities were suspicious of his motives and he arrived to a standing ovation. Of course it is right to celebrate filmmakers working in oppressive circumstances but give him a Palme d’Or!?

I may be overstating the case as I was intrigued throughout most of the film but, as is often the case for arthouse cinema, the ‘payoff’ at the ending is key to giving focus to what we’ve seen (and sometimes endured). Here Kiarostami gives us his film crew calling a wrap. I remember as a kid being told not to end stories with ‘it was only a dream’ and for him to tell his audiences ‘it was only a film’…

I’m not anti-Kiarostami, I thought The Wind Will Carry Us (Bad ma ra khahad bord, Iran-France, 1999) was great, but save me from Taste of Cherry. Spoiler: I’ll save you, that is the ‘profound statement’: ‘life is worth living because of the taste of cherry’.

The Salesman (Forushande, Iran-France, 2016)

Not quite in the frame

Another film where Asghar Farhadi ‘places’ the spectator in shifting sands in terms of what might have happened offscreen, at a crucial moment, and challenges us as to how we should respond to the developing narrative. All his last four films use this device of withholding vital information from the audience however he’s less interested in created an enigma for a thriller, though it does this, as using the ellipsis as a space where the viewer is offered to opportunity to think through various possibilities.

As in the previous films (I’ve blogged about The Past and A Separation) Farhadi obliquely (to avoid censorship?) critiques Iranian society; primarily its patronising patriarchy. In a dramatic opening, the central characters’ home is shaking as if being hit by an earthquake; it transpires its foundations are being undermined by badly regulated builders. It’s a bravura sequence, much of it is shot in one take. This metaphor extends from the shaky foundations of Iranian society to the wobbling marriage of the protagonists Rana and Emad, played superbly by Farhadi regulars Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini (who won an award at Cannes).

The couple are also playing in an am-dram production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman; the initially confusing mise en scene of the title sequence is found to be the construction of the set for the play. Miller’s play about the disillusionment, of an average Joe, with the American dream is intended to cast light on Emad in particular, a teacher who is playing the salesman. Some have found this heavy handed (see The Guardian’s Bradshaw); I wonder about the insistence on the importance of subtlety. Not that there’s anything wrong with getting the audience thinking but it isn’t a necessary signifier of ‘great art’. Farhadi is a melodramatist and over-determination is an essential tool of the genre. Maybe Bradshaw, and his ilk, are mainly interested in art for what it says about their ability to ‘read’ difficult texts. If it’s too easy then they can’t shine.

I’m not going to ‘spoil’ by outlining what the narrative ‘hole’ motivates but an unravelling proceeds. There is more than enough subtlety in the changing vectors of the relationships between the characters to satisfy, I think, anyone who likes thought-provoking cinema. Farhadi is a melodramatist but that doesn’t mean he’s making EastEnders (a UK soap opera).

It’s a film, I suspect, that will reward a second viewing. I’d particularly like to experience the beautiful use of colour of the set of Miller’s work, to emphasise the artifice of the play, which is combined with unsettling moments when it isn’t clear whether the characters were in character or not.

Farhadi’s a top director; something the Academy Awards have celebrated for the second time as he was the guy who wouldn’t have been able to attend the Oscar ceremony because of Trump’s ban. Farhadi’s humanism transcends Iranian culture which is why he’s an arthouse favourite in the west (I’m guessing Trump doesn’t do culture).

The Past (Le passé, France-Italy-Iran)

Temporal triangle

Contemporary triangle

Asghar Farhadi’s profile rose recently as he became a victim of Trump’s bigotry when he was (temporarily for now) unable to travel to America for the Oscar ceremony because he happened to be Iranian (and Muslim). Such crass prejudice exists because many people cannot deal with nuance: vast groups of people are consigned to the Other to confirm supposed superiority. In contrast, Farhadi’s films (that I’ve seen: The Separation and About Elly) focus on the entangled dynamics of relationships showing  complexity without crass judgement about who’s to blame.

In The Past, Ahmad (Ali Mousaffa) returns to Paris to finalise his divorce from Marie (Bérénice Bejo) who’s in a relationship with Samir (the brilliantly bewildered Tahar Raham). The film progresses with a series of changes of perspective; just when you think you understand the dynamics of the relationships new information alters our viewpoint. It’s as if the narrative is a series of frames of reference that are added as soon as we think we know what is going on. The growing complexity beautifully portrays the mess, and excitement, of human relationships.

The victims, as far as there are any when couples fall apart, are the children. The teenager, Céline, (Aleksandra Klebanska) is particularly vividly drawn as she torments herself with guilt because of her (imaginary?) role in the destruction of the relationship between Ahmad and Marie.

Superb acting and thoughtful direction, windows and doors obstruct communication, as well as humour (Ahmad’s discussion with Marie is interrupting – in editing – by Samir’s drilling), make this a gripping film.

 

The Wind Will Carry Us (Bad ma ra khahad bord, Iran-France, 1997)

Making strange the 'strange'

Making strange the ‘strange’

Abbas Kiarostami shoots his subjects tangentially; that is, he doesn’t necessarily place the camera in the obvious position to tell the narrative. Behzad Dorani plays the ‘engineer’, which is what the villagers in a remote location of Iran think he is, and we come to know the place through his observations. On a couple of occasions Kiarostami’s favoured long take simply focuses, from the position of the mirror, on the engineer shaving. The narrative, at this point, is carried by his conversations with the rest of his film crew; they are in the village to secretly film an ancient sacrament. Similarly, the opening sequence watches them arrive (see above) in extreme long shot, with the telephoto lens flattening the landscape; it makes strange what we recognise. We here the men in car trying to navigate via agrarian directions such as ‘turn left at the big tree’. Dorani, by the way, according to imdb, has only appeared in one other feature, which is remarkable given how brilliant he is in carrying this film.

For much of the film we are not clear what the protagonist is after; he seems to be waiting for someone to die. He spends his time wandering the village and, increasingly hilariously, rushing up the mountain to get a mobile signal. Not a lot is happening in a village where not a lot ever happens; except it does. The film covers birth, life, marriage, death, friendship, education, childhood. All of life in an exotic location is there for the spectator and it is beautifully shot; the colours are quite stunning, both the village, and its surroundings, occasional look like an Impressionist painting.

Making films in Iran is difficult unless they are treading the party line. Kiarostami’s success, and this film won the Palme d’Or, is rooted in his ability to appeal to the western art house audience. There is a slightly uneasy opposition set up in the film between the ‘town’ (the ‘engineer’ is from Tehran) and the apparently simple ‘country’ of the village. Despite the fact the film-maker is indigenous I think we are still being offered an ‘orientalist’ portrayal of a society we know very little of. The place is portrayed extremely sympathetically but we are no more than tourists. To be fair to Kiarostami, he probably feels that way too. Hence the village is ‘strange’ to my western eyes and is shot in a strange (arty) way; but what we learn is that, essentially, the strange is very much the same.

It might not be the same, though, I cannot tell from the film.

Wadjda (Saudi Arabia, 2012)

Females in the wasteland

Females in the wasteland

This is an extraordinary film, less for its content, which is good, but for the fact that it’s directed by a woman in a society that treats women, almost, as non citizens in the public sphere. Haifaa Al-Mansour’s debut feature, she’d already made a documentary, follows the feisty Wadjda as she determines to get and ride a bike. This, of course, is such a basic desire for most children, but for a girl in Saudi it’s more like pie in the sky.

A simple narrative offering a slice of life, and concerning a bike, inevitably recalls Bicycle Thieves (Italy, 1948) but Al-Mansour cites Rosetta (France-Belguim, 1999) and Offside (Iran, 2006). The former follows the titular, determined young woman; the latter, young women trying to watch a football match in Tehran. The Day I Became a Woman (Iran, 2000) also springs to mind in its portrayal of women in a repressive society. Wadjda stands up well in comparison with all the contemporary films; few films, if any, can match De Sica’s classic. I live in Bradford and have been alarmed to see women increasingly wearing the niqab in recent years which, to my feminist western eyes, reeks of repression. There’s little doubt that the west’s ‘war on terror’ (i.e. Islamic fundamentalist) has stimulated a reactionary reaction. As Al-Mansour makes clear, in a Sight & Sound interview (August 2013), there’s nothing in the Koran that states women should wear the full veil, it’s an invention of the Wahabi sect that has medieval ideas of how women should be treated.

The film itself portrays this absurdity with wit: for example, the girls have to stop playing because they are in the eyeline of men working on a roof some distance away. Wadjda refuses to be put down by social mores and ploughs her own furrow, no doubt just as Al-Mansour has; she stated, in the same interview, that Saudi society will change. The fact this film was made is evidence of that, though there are no cinemas in Saudi Arabia for it to be screened. The ruling class there clearly like to keep the populace in ignorance.

And just in case anyone thinks I believe the west treats women properly: we are a long way from a true equality. And just in case anyone thinks I believe we are fully informed by our governments: we aren’t.

Certified Copy (Copie conforme, France-Italy-Belguim-Iran, 2010)

Where's the truth?

Where’s the truth?

Like the Before Sunrise-Midnight films, Abbas Kiarostami relies heavily on long takes, long conversations and entirely convincing performances. Of course Juliette Binoche can be expected to be absolutely wonderful but William Shimell…? Kiarostami had directed him in a performance of a Mozart opera so knew he’d be up to the task; it’s inspired casting. Shimell has since appeared in Amour (2012).

Befitting of Kiarostami’s art house status, Certified Copy is more obviously intellectual than Richard Linklater’s films; which is not to say it’s better or worse. I wasn’t particularly interested in the philosophy of authenticity in art, or in relationships, but was riveted by the conversations, and the Tuscan landscape, that ran throughout the film. There’s a brilliant twist, about half way through so stop reading now if you plan to see the film.

It has appeared so far that Binoche’s Elle (a ‘universal’ ‘she’?) has been flirting with the intellectual James (Shimell) but, when they are mistaken as a married couple, she plays along with the error and then he too plays along… But are they or are they not actually married? It is a brilliant sleight of narrative that raises issues of longevity in relationships, memory, as well as gender roles. Unsurprisingly Kiarostami doesn’t bother to tell us the ‘truth’ of the situation, leaving us to ponder if we wish. I’m sure we’ll ponder the actors’ brilliance and, maybe, Kiarostami’s too. I’m not suggesting that his film is derivative in any way, he often uses long takes in his films and may have patented the car dashboard camera.

One clue to the film’s playfulness is surely the casting of Jean-Claude Carrière in a minor role. Carrière scripted a number of Luis Bunuel’s late films and  surrealism is expertly interlaced with the ostensible realism of this film’s visual style and the performances.

A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin, Iran, 2011)

Points of view

Points of view

Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly (Darbareye Elly, Iran, 2009) was one of my favourite films from last year so I was overdue in catching up with this Oscar-winning follow-up (incidentally it seems to me the Academy’s taste in foreign-language films is better than its English-language preferences). This film, unlike Elly, is a slow-burner in that it takes a while to set up without the engaging humour of the earlier piece but it’s nonetheless fascinating in its representation of Iranian life. However, once the ‘mystery’ narrative is underway – what actually happened when…? – the moral complexities of the situation are gripping.

In its narrative enigma it’s similar too About Elly however A Separation focuses more upon religious and social mores than its predecessor, which had the position of women in Iranian society at its centre. Women here, too, are important, but are one aspect of many including the role of judiciary and how to deal with Alzheimer’s in an ageing parent.

Farhadi’s direction is both arty, particularly the opening sequence when the estranged central couple directly address the camera as the judge, and realist in its handheld following of action. The film’s blessed with a multitude of excellent performances, including Farhadi’s young daughter. It ultimately makes gripping viewing.

In interview Farhadi is understandably reticent about his social critique, fellow-director Jafar Panahi has been imprisoned by the Iranian regime (the last election was hardly legitimate), but from a western perspective his criticism of the sexism of religious Iranian culture is clear. Not that we should congratulate ourselves in Britain, today’s Guardian newspapers highlights that of the 20 over-50 TV presenters only 4 are women. The forces of reaction are strong everywhere.