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A glimpse into the world of Iranian cinema

By Noel Vera
December 5, 2000

Iranian cinema may be the newest old thing in the world at the moment - "old" in the sense that the country has been making cinema for almost as long as cinema has been around, "new" in the sense that only as recently as the '90s has it gained worldwide attention. Moshen Makhmalbaf's Gabbeh was shown in competition at the Venice Film Fest; Abbas Kiarostami's A Taste of Cherry won Cannes' highest prize, the Golden Palm. The Village Voice and Sight & Sound Magazine voted Kiarostami one of the top directors of the decade; Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven was nominated an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film... which ultimately went to Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother (but give the Academy time, they're a touch slow on the uptake). It's time we learned more about this rich and varied cinema, and recently (Nov. 15-21, at the Glorietta 4 theaters) the Iranian embassy has been helping out by proudly (if a bit quietly) giving us a glimpse.

What's so special about Iranian cinema, anyway? It's simpler to show than describe the answer - watch any few minutes of any of their films and you'll know what I mean. Take Kiarostami's And Life Goes On, actually a sequel to his earlier Where is My Friend's Home? A powerful earth-quake has just devastated northern Iran; the director of Where returns to the region where he shot the film and, accompanied by his son, looks for the film's two child stars, hoping they survived the quake.

The film mixes fictional and real characters (the film director, for one, is played by an actor), takes its sweet time telling its story, and occasionally - in moments as unexpected yet precise as the highlight on a Rembrandt portrait - pulls off stun-ningly great shots with grace and ease.

In one especially lovely scene the director's son consoles a mother who has lost her child with words of wisdom (part of Kiarostami's art is to show us that to the mother the words are wisdom, while to the boy it's idle prattle to pass away the time). Near the film's end the director leaves his son at a refugee camp (above which men are struggling to plant a TV antenna) so that the boy can watch that evening's World Cup football game on television. The film shows us the many ways in which people cope with destruct-ion and the death of their loved ones - shows us, as the title promises, that life does go on, despite everything.

Kiarostami's style is unique. The best description I can come up with is that it combines Robert Bresson's visual austerity with Yasujiro Ozu's lighthearted domesticity and humor, but even that doesn't quite capture the flavor of his films - doesn't quite capture the beauty of the final shot of And Life Goes On, by itself an entire parable on human relations. Kiarostami is very much imitated - there are images in Zhang Yimou's recent The Road Home that seem inspired by him (all those lonely little human figures lost in vast landscapes) - and his is the recognized "house style" of Iranian cinema.

But his is hardly the only one - Mohsen Makhmalbaf has an equally unique style. His The Peddler is a collection of three short stories of which the first, "The Happy Child" (based on a story by Alberto Moravia), is easily one of the most bizarre pieces of film I've ever seen, about a married couple living in an abandoned bus with three deformed children, trying to find someone rich and kind and God-fearing to give away their fourth child to (good luck to them). Makhmalbaf is fond of surreal touches, and has an even odder sense of humor than Kiarostami (when told that he shouldn't have married his cousin, the husband replies: "Then whose cousin should I have married?"). He is a genuine fantabulist, in the com-pany of Luis Bunuel, Jan Svankmajer, Tim Burton.

Dariush Mehrjui has a looser, more mobile camera than both Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf, but it's with colors that Mehrjui distinguishes himself.

He likes to shoot deep, deep reds and velvety shadows, and occasionally have his images dissolve into blinding white light. Unlike Kiarostami, whose stories usually take place in the countryside and among poor people, Mehrjui is a storyteller of the educated middle classes, particularly of the women of that class.

The film festival showed two of his films, of which one, Sara is a surprisingly effective remake of Henrik Ibsen's The Doll House. There are flaws to the film - it was pointed out to me that Iranian bank practices differ from what's shown in the film, and the ending has been altered from Ibsen's original without much improvement - but the idea of a woman rebelling against repressive male society still holds force and validity in this Iranian translation. Much better (and possibly Mehrjui's best work) is Leila, about a sterile wife who along with her husband is forced to accept a second wife into their home. Mehrjui's depiction of two intelligent, sensitive people very much in love who (without intending to) gradually destroy their marriage is both harrowing and believable.

Majid Majidi's The Father is rougher in texture than his Oscar-nominated Children of Heaven or his Color of Paradise, both later works. But the emotional intensity is still there, and where in Color the tension between father and son was a suggested under-current, here (between a 14-year-old boy and his police stepfather) it blooms into full-scale war. Majidi is easily the most accessible of Iranian filmmakers because his stories are quickly paced and quickly understood, yet the milieu is distinctly Iranian.

Kiyanush Ayari's To Be or Not To Be is Iranian filmmaking at its most documentarylike; the film unfolds like an urgent newsreel special on a hot topic - in this case, organ transplants. What makes the film especially Iranian (and especially compelling) is that people look upon transplant patients with anger and distrust, calling them ghouls who wait for others to die so that they can take their innards.

Varush Karim Masihi's The Last Act is the most intriguing film of the festival if only because it looks unlike any other film in the festival or, for that matter, any other Iranian film I have yet seen. If you want a quick description, think of a collaboration between Anton Chekov and Agatha Christie - a brother and sister conspire to rob their sister-in-law of her inheritance, and they hire a theatrical group (acting out a script written by the brother) to do it. It's eerie, stylish, Gothic and funny, a combination you'd never think you'd see in an Iranian film.

Along with the seven film prints arrived the star of The Last Act, Darioush Arjmand, who plays the brother-playwright, and whom I was able to interview.

Arjmand is a voluble, opinionated, highly entertaining raconteur with a halo of dramatic grey-white hair, a pipe in one hand, and a knife in the other that he uses to scratch out the bowl of his pipe. Translating on his behalf (he knew a little English, but was more comfortable in Arabic and French) was Mohsen Tanahandeh, chief director of audiovisial for the Organization of Cultural and International Relations.

Arjmand declared right off that he chose to do The Last Act because he thought that the screenplay was good, and "different from anything I have read." When I noted that it is not like most other Iranian films I have seen, which often feature children and are set in the desert, he replied, "Most Iranian films seen outside of Iran are often made for film festivals and are not typical of Iranian films."

"Would you say that festival films do not always show a true picture of life in Iran?"

"Yes. It is not true that our people are extremely poor, yet that is what you always see in these films. It is also not true that most of the country is desert. We have a great variety of places in Iran, many forests, mountains, even cold and ice. There are cities, suburbs, and public buildings."

When asked who for him are the best Iranian filmmakers, he said, "The best Iranian filmmakers, even you have not heard of; they are rarely if ever shown in film festivals (a claim I might make for some of the very best Filipino filmmakers as well).

"One of my favorites is Bahram Beizaee, and his masterpiece is Bashou Gharibeh Kochak (Bashou the Little Boy). It's about a little boy who is a refugee from the Iran-Iraqi wars. He lives with a family and forms a close attachment to that family's mother, so much so that when his real father appears, he doesn't recognize him. This, I think, is the greatest Iranian film ever made.

"Another great Iranian filmmaker is Ali Hatami. He did a biographical film of Amir Kabir, a prime minister of the Ghajarie dynasty. He also did a film on Kamal Almok, a great painter from the same dynasty - this is a famous film that makes a statement about that dynasty. He also directed Haji Washington (Pilgrimage to Washington), about the first Iranian ambassador to the United States."

I asked him if he liked any of the filmmakers who do go to festivals.

"Abbas Kiarostami is a master. I like his Where is My Friend's Home very much. I think his A Taste of Cherry is a masterpiece, about this suicidal man. Why he wants to commit suicide is never known - that's not what Kiarostami wants to find out. Rather, the man goes around offering money, looking for someone to bury him when he's dead, which is required in Moslem religion.

"Anywhere else in the world, when a man goes around offering you money, what is most likely to happen? Someone kills you and takes the money. This does not happen to the man. He meets young men, soldiers, diggers, none of them wants his money, even if they need it very much. I think this man, going around and offering money, shows something about the people of Iran. It's not what the man does that is important to Kiarostami. It's what the people do when he approaches them."

"You mean," I said, "the man him-self, he is just an abstract idea. A kind of Rosharch test that the different people of Iran react to."


"But," I said, "someone does take his money. The old man..."


"Who changes his mind about suicide."

"We don't know that," Arjmand said. "That is possible, but it is not clear. I don't think it is important to Kiarostami that we know what really happens."

Which is an interesting idea, to say the least. I didn't like A Taste of Cherry because the protagonist seemed too abstract a character to care about, but Arjmand's interpretation put the film in an entirely different light...

"How about outside of Iran? Which filmmaker do you like?"

Arjmand's face lit up like a child. "I like Tim Burton very much. Sleepy Hollow, Ed Wood, Mars Attacks! I like them very much."

It was getting late. "So in con-clusion, you're saying that the Iranian films showing at festivals paint a distorted picture of Iran. What do you want to do about this?"

It was Mohsen Tanahandeh who answered this question. "We want to do our own festival of films here in the Philippines. But instead of just Iranian films made for festivals, we want to show all kinds of films. Popular films, films that show an Iran people don't know about yet. We also want to show filmmakers that as Mr. Arjmand says are not known outside of Iran but are very great."

"That sounds like a good idea," I told him.


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