Saturday, June 9, 2012

Contemporary Iranian Cinema Marathon (Part 1)

The Filmspotting podcast has a running feature that separates it from other sources of film discussion shows, its “marathons.”  A marathon provides Filmspotting an opportunity to take a thorough investigation into the work of a particular filmmaker, genre, or topic, which are often overlooked but necessary to have a well-rounded film education.   In the past, these marathons have included the works of filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Werner Herzog.  Also, they could take on particular genres such as westerns, musicals, and animated films.  Listener participation in these marathons is always encouraged, and now that I am a committed Filmspotting fanboy, I decided that I would play along with the next marathon whatever the topic. 

Iranian cinema was brought to the forefront in many film buffs' eyes in 2011 with A Separation's Oscar win for Best Foreign Film and Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami's breakthrough English-language debut, Certified Copy (though I am ashamed to admit that I have watched neither at the time of writing this post).  Yet Iranian cinema did not begin in 2011, obviously.  It has a rich history that has long been ignored in the United States, so this marathon will be my tool to tap into that history.

This topic is a perfect example of what the idea of a marathon seeks to accomplish because I will be introduced to six films by its end that would have never caught my attention otherwise.  In doing so, my film education will be enhanced to include a whole cadre of films that would have certainly been ignored had I not taken part in this activity.  In this post I will cover the first three films included in Filmspotting’s marathon of “Contemporary Iranian Cinema.”  I plan to write another post in the near future to complete the marathon.

So here it goes, my marathon through contemporary Iranian cinema (part one)....

Close-Up (1990) – Mark it 7.

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
Starring Hossain Sabzian, the Ahankhah Family, Mohsen Makhmalbaf

One entry into the Iranian cinema marathon and I have already been introduced to a film unlike any I’ve ever seen before.  Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up is a documentary, of sorts, that blends real life trial footage and interviews with reenactments of the scenes described in court.  Kiarostami seamlessly blends the real footage and reenactments by mixing up the timeline of events and by using the real people (both the plaintiffs and the defendant) as his actors.  Close-Up acts as a grand filmic experiment but the hook of its story is so compelling that it makes the film accessible to more than just the art house crowd.

Close-Up's story begins with a newspaper article about Hossain Sabzian, a man who dreams of being a filmmaker but struggles just to get by, who was caught impersonating another filmmaker, of much higher stature.  This article caught Kiarostami’s eye and inspired him to dig deeper into the story.  It turned out that a family (the Ahankhah’s) mistook Sabzian for a famous filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf.  Having never been able to earn the kind of respect he gets as “Makhmalbaf,” Sabzian plays along with the rouse.  Obviously, the family figures out what he is up to, and Kiarostami enters the story when Sabzian is in jail for fraud and waiting his trial.  Throughout the film, you gain glimpses into Sabzian’s psyche as a troubled man whose sincere love for Makhmalbaf’s artistry leads him to make such a foolish attempt to gain some sense of that talent for himself.  Though Sabzian broke the law, it is nearly impossible to view him as a bad guy.  Even those whom he duped also wish him the best the end.

I found it fascinating to witness a justice system so different from our American version.  Close-Up presents Iranian trials (in 1990) as a participatory activity where the judge, the defendant, and witnesses all take part in a sort of conversation that leads to consensus and a verdict.  It is a refreshing take on justice, and completely unexpected when one makes their ill-informed assumptions about Iran.  Of course, Sabzian’s crime is relatively small-scale and Close-Up does not investigate Iran’s procedures on more heinous acts.  It would be just as irresponsible to use one film as the basis of my understanding of Iran as it would to solely use what we are force fed about them in the media.  It’s just exciting to know that during this marathon, my perspective on a group of people so often misunderstood in the United States will be widened by experiencing six works of their art.  Close-Up was my first experience and a very impressive introduction.

Taste of Cherry (1997) – Mark it 6.

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
Starring Homayoun Ershadi, Abdolrahman Bagheri

** NOTE:  Taste of Cherry is not part of the official Filmspotting marathon on Contemporary Iranian cinema.  Their second film in the marathon, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence is not available on Netflix or in the Milwaukee County library system, so I am unable to view it.  I have therefore replaced it with another Iranian film, Taste of Cherry, which was part of Filmspotting’s past marathon of Palme d’Or Winners at the Cannes Film Festival. **

Like Close-Up before, Abbas Kiarostami has introduced me to a film unlike any I had ever seen before with Taste of Cherry.   This is a mesmerizing and beautiful film to behold, but can be painfully slow at times.  For most of the film, the audience is placed in the car of a man named Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) as he drives around the outskirts of Tehran, looking for someone to assist in his suicide.  We know nothing about this man’s past or the reasons behind his monumental decision.  We only know that he has come to the decision to end his life and wants to pay someone to check his body the next morning; if he responds to their call:  help him out of the hole he has prepared, and if he does not:  cover his body with dirt so he can die with dignity.

The film is structured around three conversations Mr. Badii has with prospective assistants.  We are mere flies on the wall as he discusses his plans with these people, and receives different responses.  One is a terrified young soldier who wants no part of his plan and another is a religious man who debates Badii over the morals of suicide.  The third and most emotional conversation comes with an old taxidermist whose survival of a suicide attempt has instilled him with profound wisdom.  Throughout these three conversations, Kiarostami is able to make a case for the gift of life and shows Badii weigh both sides of the argument without ever definitively giving us his answer.  You can only watch and hope that the urge to see more sunsets and taste more cherries will sway Badii’s decision.

While I see the many strengths within Taste of Cherry, I must admit that it can be a struggle to get through this film (even I didn’t make it to the end until my third attempt).  When I say that this film follows a man having conversations in his car, it is quite literally of a man having conversations in his car.  You have to prepare to be challenged by a film to enjoy it (including an ending that I am still trying to wrap my head around).  But once you are willing to endure its slow and meditative pace, you will be rewarded by a very powerful film experience.

Fireworks Wednesday (2006) - Mark it 8.

Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Starring Taraneh Alidoosti, Hedye Tehrani, Hamid Farokh-Nejad

There are a lot of mysteries about life in Iran to us Americans, but if Asghar Farhadi’s fantastic drama is any evidence, it is clear that relationships’ complexities are universal.  Fireworks Wednesday throws a innocent maid and bride-to-be, Rouhi (Taraneh Alidousti), into the midst of the highly combustible marriage of her new employers, Mojdeh (Hedye Tehrani) and Morteza (Hamid Farokh-Nejad).  When we meet Rouhi, she is happily riding to work with her fiancé, goofing around with her co-workers, and admiring her wedding dress as she tries it on.  Though poor, and working on the day before a holiday (hence the fireworks that Wednesday), Rouhi views the world with nothing but optimism.  However, one day with Mojdeh and Morteza will challenge that worldview.

As the audience, our understanding of this marriage’s details is just as mysterious to us as they are to Rouhi.  From the onset, something is awry.  The home is a mess, with broken glass on the floor and bandages covering Morteza’s hand.  When he leaves for work, Rouhi meets his unstable wife who immediately fires Rouhi only to hire her back to investigate a neighbor she suspects is the root of her husband’s infidelity.  Needless to say, poor Rouhi is completely confused but follows along out of curiosity, because she needs the money, or because she is just a good person who wants to help out someone with concerns (it is never made clear).  Whether Morteza was faithful or not flip-flops in Rouhi’s mind, and in mine.  As we learn more about the Morteza and Mojdeh, the only certainty is that keeping a healthy marriage is difficult work.  When the workday is over and Rouhi reunites with her fiance, we can only hope that this experience did not sour her optimism that was initially so appealing.

While the majority of this film takes place in one apartment and between only a handful of characters, Fireworks Wednesday is still an heartpounding piece of drama.  The plot is so perfectly constructed to lead us from the lightness of Rouhi’s life before this day to the darker parts of life she witnesses with Mojdeh and Morteza.  Yet neither partner in this marriage is a monster; thanks in large part to the outstanding performances by Tehrani and Farokh-Nejad.  They are just two normal people who’ve hit a rough patch and are dealing with it as best they can.  Taraneh Alidousti is just as strong as Rouhi’s innocent perspective gets tarnished by the ugly truths that can come with marriage, and must figure out how to avoid that ugliness in her soon-to-be married life after the credits roll.

*click here to read my reviews of the other films in the marathon.

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