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Sleeper cells
Society as a prison in the Festival of Films from Iran
The Boston Festival of Films from Iran
At the Museum of Fine Arts November 13 to December 13.

Sometimes the term "festival" seems an ironic way of referring to a collection of films — a Rainer Werner Fassbinder festival, for example. At least the works in the Museum of Fine Arts’ annual Iran selection have often had a festive feel: though they certainly don’t overlook the harsher aspects of life, Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Jafar Panahi usually end up celebrating it.

That’s not the case with the MFA’s current "Festival of Films from Iran." Whether they reflect the turmoil and dread of the post–September 11 world or the swirling chaos of the Middle East or the internal conflicts of a country torn between fundamentalist tradition and modernist reform, these movies portray Iran as a vast prison camp. They see their society, and human existence in general, as a Kafkaesque nightmare of confinement in which the cells may be varied but are all inescapable.

So pessimistic are some of these films that they begin right away with their unhappy endings. Directed by Panahi, who first gained international notice with his deceptively whimsical The White Balloon (1995), and scripted by Kiarostami, Crimson Gold (2003; December 12 at 8 p.m.) opens with a security-camera-eye view of a botched robbery. The gunman is Hussein, a hulking war vet suffering from some debilitating illness and eking out a living as a pizza deliveryman with his roly-poly pal Ali. Outlined in flashback, Hussein’s life prior to the fatal crime consists of random degrading incidents. Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, he encounters the rich and powerful in the course of his trade and finds them decadent, despotic, and disdainful.

A humiliating attempt to purchase wedding jewels for his sad little bride — Ali’s sister — at a tony shop determines Hussein in his doomed course. Once again Panahi demonstrates his eye for the eccentric but exacting incident and detail. Hussein’s final night, which he spends in the penthouse of a Western-born playboy who needs "someone to talk to," is hilarious and pitiful. As in his previous film, The Circle, Panahi elegantly demonstrates the vicious circle of crime and punishment; here he suggests that the only way to escape the circle is by being more vicious than the system that spins it.

The unhappy ending that Parviz Shahbazi’s meandering and haunting Deep Breath (2002; December 12 at 6 p.m. and December 13 at 12:15 p.m.) opens with is more ambiguous than that of Crimson Gold, and his pair of social outcasts are more representative, including a member of the privileged class as well as a downtrodden prole. The film begins with two bodies fished from a reservoir after a car has capsized; one is a young man, the other is long-haired and might be a woman. Or it might be Kamran, the epicene rich boy whose weltschmerz and mysterious debilitating illness (as in Crimson Gold) make him incapable of attending his university classes and too weary to enjoy his raffish friend Mansour’s high spirits and petty crime. They go on a spree of idleness and vandalism until Mansour falls in love with Ayda, a free-spirited hitchhiker they pick up. In the French tradition of Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle, François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, and Bertrand Blier’s Les valseuses, Deep Breath ends with a sigh.

Maybe what these shiftless, young ne’er-do-wells need is a taste of army discipline — though it didn’t seem to have done Hussein much good in Crimson Gold. The sad-sack recruits, country bumpkins mostly, in Ali Reza Amini’s bleak and fitfully witty Letters in the Wind (2001; November 15 at 5:15 p.m. and November 21 at 6 p.m.) join the army to see the world and get to see a more constricted version of the one they were all too familiar with. Isolated in a wintry mountain boot camp where they engage in meaningless and often humiliating drills and exercises, they have as their one contact with a realm beyond soul-destroying routine a tape recording of a woman’s voice smuggled in by one of their number. He gets a longed-for furlough to Tehran, but his contact with real women turns out to be less satisfying than the recording.

There doesn’t seem much difference between the barracks in Letters and the prison ward in Mohammad Rasoulof’s possibly staged but nonetheless fascinating documentary The Twilight (2002; November 22 at 12:45 p.m.). If anything, recidivist convict Reza gets a better deal than his peers in the armed forces. He’s served half his life behind bars, and his behavior has gotten only worse, so in desperation the warden proposes a scheme whereby Reza’s mother, herself behind bars in the women’s wing, should pick out a suitable bride for her son from among her cellmates. Once Reza settles down with a wife and has a kid, the warden surmises, he’ll be able to integrate into society. Why hasn’t this turned up yet as a reality-TV concept on Fox? Needless to say, Reza’s marital bond leads only to a more insidious form of imprisonment.

An allegorical variation, perhaps, on the situation in Twilight is Babak Payami’s Silence Between Two Thoughts (2003; November 28 at 8 p.m. and November 30 at 12:20 p.m.). In a premise that would make even John Ashcroft’s blood run cold, the fundamentalist warlord of a drought-ridden village stops his executioner from carrying out the sentence against a condemned woman. She’s a virgin, the local holy man says, and if she’s killed, she’ll go to heaven. To make sure she goes to hell, the warlord insists that his executioner marry the prisoner, deflower her, and then finish his interrupted job.

Perhaps the film should be titled Silence Between Two Shots, since it consists of long takes — portentous tracking shots and 360-degree pans — devoid of dialogue and sometimes confusing in intent. With good reason: the film’s negative was seized by the Iranian government, and what survives here is a reconstruction based on computer files.

The jailer/prisoner relationship gets a kinkier spin in Fariborz Kambari’s ambitious and sensationalistic Black Tape: A Tehran Diary — The Videotape Fariborz Kambari Found in the Garbage (2002; December 5 at 8 p.m. and December 7 at 12:15 p.m.). A bride gets a video camera from her powerful, much older husband, and the film that follows is her disjointed video diary disclosing an increasingly melodramatic tale of captivity, sado-masochism, patriarchal tyranny, and police state oppression. Kambari starts out toying with the kind of truth-versus-fiction subtleties of Kiarostami’s films-within-films but soon drops that for lurid melodrama. The garish trappings can’t conceal Black Tape’s basic message, however: an oppressive society begins with its basic social units, in particular the relationship between men and women.

Long a pioneer in women’s issues in film, Tahmineh Milani with The Fifth Reaction (2003; November 21 at 7:45 p.m. and November 23 at 3:45 p.m.) offers an initially hopeful alternative to the ruthless and unlimited male authority over women epitomized in Black Tape. A young widow finds herself pitted against her father-in-law, a powerful Tehran businessman, for custody of her two sons. For once she overcomes her usual submissiveness and, aided by her coffee klatch of friends, plots to escape with her children. Milani is harsh in her critique of the evil father-in-law and the unjust system he embodies. But she also has reservations about the widow’s female allies: rich and dilettantish themselves, they engage in the rescue as if it were a game. As does the father-in-law, and of course it’s a game whose rules favor him.

Men are, no surprise, similarly favored in Rakhshan Bani Etemad’s documentary Our Times (2002; November 14 at 8 p.m.), a personal record of the 2001 presidential election that ended with the overwhelming re-election of the reformist incumbent Khatami. The film begins as a look at the outpouring of youthful enthusiasm during the campaign. But Etemad’s attention is caught by the fact that among the 711 other candidates, some four dozen were women, and many of them women whose names she didn’t recognize.

So she tracks these outspoken unknowns down, focusing finally on a woman who describes herself as a "sweet village girl" whose only qualifications for the office are that she has experienced many of the woes of the people she hopes to lead. Married twice to drug addicts, a single mother, she has struggled through a series of iniquitous and demoralizing dead-end jobs to support her young daughter and her aged, blind mother. She doesn’t expect to win the election, especially since while the other candidates are campaigning, she’s being evicted from her home and has to scrounge around for a new apartment. Her hope instead is that her story, and those of people like her, will be told. Thanks to Etemad’s touching and acidly ironic movie, and the other films in this none-too-festive but nonetheless life-affirming festival, that hope is fulfilled.

Issue Date: November 14 - 20, 2003
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