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.