Chasing the Chador
Pauline Kael (that scamp) once called the Italian neorealist classic The Earth Trembles "the best boring movie ever made." Today the earth is inundated with Iranian neo-neorealism, a wave of arguably boring good movies with cheapo production values, aleatoric docu-dramaturgy, dewy but not innocent amateur actors and a piercing concern for the downtrodden.
Not that Iran is in a retro film renaissance. The scene's three heavy directors (Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi) and their progeny bring fresh goodies to the neorealist party: a passion for puzzles with half-matching pieces, an eye for color and design, a love of the found object and the hidden theme. Their what-is-reality narrative games resemble our old-time Modernist religion without actually growing out of it. Iranian film is proof, in fact, that similar evolutionary leaps occur in isolated populations.
It's also fruitfully incestuous. The patriarch Kiarostami put Iran on the map with movies like Close Up (1990). It could be titled Becoming Mohsen Makhmalbaf--it's a hall-of-mirrors movie using the people from the real-life case of a guy who was tried for impersonating the country's second-most-respected director. The hoaxer's victim told the impersonated director, "Mr. Makhmalbaf, the other Mr. Makhmalbaf was more Makhmalbaf than you are." Makhmalbaf went on to mess with his own identity in A Moment of Innocence (1996), starring himself and a cop that he actually stabbed as a young revolutionary in 1974. Puckishly, they re-enact the stabbing, coaching teens to play their younger selves. This brilliant film makes the political intimately personal.
But Iran's biggest hit came from the number-three director, Kiarostami's ambitious assistant, Panahi. His 1995 The White Balloon avoids bizarro-world storytelling, though it's written by Kiarostami. Simply, it follows 7-year-old Razieh (the formidably whiny Aida Mohammadkhani), who stalks the streets of Teheran (actually a picturesquely preserved traditional exurb) seeking a fat goldfish for New Year's Day. She confronts a cross section of society--snake charmers, a tailor, a solicitous soldier. The scenes have an offhand beauty, and the composition is careful: Razieh loses her goldfish money down a sewer grate with vertical bars neatly framed by the horizontal bands of a metal shutter and a patterned brick wall. Panahi is an artful dodger of censorship: If you were a credulous government censor, you might not notice that the snake show is like forbidden cinema ("I wanted to see what it was that was not good for me to watch," says Razieh), or that her sitcom dad, shouting in the shower that his kid got him soap instead of shampoo, is a tyrant. That soldier who comforts the kid is kind--if that's how you think of authorities--or unsettlingly intrusive if not.
Panahi blew it with his follow-up, the slapdash slab-of-life drama The Mirror (1997). In it, a girl (Mina Mohammadkhani) wanders a poorly photographed town after her mom forgets to pick her up from school, getting rides in buses and cars and listening to garrulous grownups gab, mostly about social issues. Kiarostami is a virtuoso of the car-ride philosophizing scene; Panahi is unconvincing in impersonating his style. The girl throws a tiff, doffs her costume, shouts at the suddenly visible camera crew, "I'm not acting anymore!" and goes home. The film mumbles itself to sleep. Kiarostami speaks of a spontaneous, "half-created" cinema, but this is half-assed. Maybe Panahi should leave the Pirandello stuff to the other guys.
But then, he should make more movies like his latest, the first big Iranian/Italian neo-neorealist movie, The Circle. (The Italians put up much of the dough; it's Panahi's show.) Even if you want to strangle all the critics who sold you on sitting through the more excruciatingly non-goal-oriented Iranian flicks, you may love The Circle as much as I do. Granted, we've all cut Teheran's Tinseltown way too much slack because it's so noble, the ultimate indie insurgency untainted by the Great Infotainment Satan, issuing urgent bulletins from a cultural battlefront that makes the Bush Administration look like Weimar. But The Circle is great in purely formal terms, quite apart from its searing social/political critique. Panahi is not quite in Satyajit Ray's league, but now he's in the same ballpark.
The Circle opens the way The White Balloon did: with credits on a black screen and the scene set by sound--jangly, upbeat street sounds in The White Balloon, foreboding shrieks of childbirth here. A square window in a stark white door slides open, framing a nurse in a white room wearing a white nunlike getup. A woman symmetrically clad in black anxiously asks about her daughter, the new mother. "It's a girl!" exults the grinning nurse. Disaster! "The in-laws will be furious. They'll insist on a divorce," says the new grandma. "They want a boy." The camera tracks the mourning grandma making her circuitous way past the inquiring in-laws and out of the hospital. It feels like a slow-motion prison breakout.
She passes two actual prison escapees anxiously huddling in the street, Nargess (radiant 18-year-old movie newcomer Nargess Mamizadeh) and the slightly older Arezou (Maryiam Parvin Almani), both draped in black. The camera (wielded by Bahram Badakhshani with more fluid grace than cinematographer Farzad Jadat displayed in The White Balloon) lets grandma make her stately way offscreen and focuses on the young women, picking up their jittery energy. A man in the street sexually taunts them. In the background, cops round up another female; the convicts whip on chadors and hunker down behind a car. They mean to light out for the territory, Nargess's paradisaical hometown, but they need bus fare. Arezou leads Nargess to a sinister-looking building and has her wait at the foot of a circular stairway; Arezou ascends, goes off with men and returns with cash.