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The crown jewel
... of Iranian cinema

January 15, 2002
The Iranian

The very first Iranian film I ever saw was Gheysar. I must have been around 7 or 8. It was hard for me to follow the plot but nevertheless I was really impressed. Then, two decades and hundreds of movies later, I came across it again. I decided to watch it and, far from being disappointed, I fell in love with it all over again. Like milk, a lot of films have "expiry dates". But Gheysar turned out to be more like really expensive wine. And I was finally old enough to really savour it. [See Nader Davoodi's photo essay: Gheysar Bath]

Gheysar could be dissected, analyzed, taken apart like any other landmark film. It is as epic as any Ford Western, as artistic as any Kurosawa samurai tale, and as gritty as any Coppola mafia saga. Like many of these films, Gheysar depicts a very unique world dominated by a set of rules, a code, if you will, that dictates to the players what is right and wrong, honorable and immoral. This code has crippling effects on the inhabitants of this world, and they more often than not meet their demise while trying to uphold unforgiving tenets.

In Gheysar, the world of a Tehran neighbourhood is ruled by machismo and its justice is not meted out by rule of law but by individuals fighting on behalf of their families, like a Sicilian vendetta. The Code is so strict, so black and white, that when a young girl is raped and commits suicide, her uncle pronounces her death a"blessing". In Gheysar's world, a young girl would be better off dead than go on having a "tainted" existence.

This initial event triggers a series of consequences as inexorable as if someone had tipped a domino chain. The fate of the characters is sealed at the very beginning of the film. The two brothers of the young girl are the persons designated by The Code to avenge the family honor. They are played by Nasser Malak-Motiei and Behrouz Voussoughi. It is interesting that both these characters have tried to escape the suffocating stranglehold of The Code on their life. Malak-Motoui has attempted to save himself by clinging to religious fervor while Voussoughi's character, Gheysar, has tried to physically escape his condition by relocating to another town.

The theme of escape from society to an idyllic place is constantly explored in Iranian cinema and here, again, it is shown how impossible it is to escape one's fate. Ultimately, both brothers succumb to The Code and their destiny.

Aside from an amazing cultural exploration of a very closed-off branch of Iranian society, Gheysar is also a complex psychological exploration of an individual conflicted between two notions of morality. Gheysar does not find it easy to comply with the duty bestowed on him. It is a real struggle to figure out how to do the right thing. He briefly flirts with the idea of happiness represented by love and physical escape. But no matter how he tries to rationalize it, he cannot succeed.

Once he makes the decision to go ahead with his vendetta, the moral struggle still does not go away. Thanks to a fantastically understated yet strong performance by Voussoughi, we are able to live with Gheysar's suffering every time he takes another step towards his goal. The film succeeds in making the audience identify and even sympathize with a main character who is in fact a murderer. Gheysar is an anti-hero in the best of traditions, like Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, or The Godfather's Don Corleone.

At yet another level, Gheysar is an incredible suspense story, with scenes that still keep the modern, jaded viewer on edge. For example, the shocking death of one of the main characters early on in the film is akin to Hitchcock murdering the Janet Leigh character in the first minutes of Psycho. This total defiance of movie conventions deliberately sets the tone that anything could happen for the rest of the film.

Amazon Honor SystemProbably the best scene in the movie, for me, is Gheysar's first murder, which takes place in the bathhouse. Again, another similarity with that other famous shower scene in Psycho. The editing sequence inside the shower is quick and sharp, just like the blade of Gheysar's knife. And when he stands under the water after the deed is done, washing the blood from his body becomes a symbolic cleansing of his soul, a purification after the sin, which he knows he will ultimately have to atone for.

Last but not least, the musical score is a dramatic and perfect choice that reinforces the atmosphere of doom and pessimism that permeate the story.

It would be a shame to adhere to the school of thought that relegates all pre-revolution Iranian cinema to "filmfarsi" trash. While I love the current work of Makhmalbaf, Kiarostami and other "New Wave" Iranian film-makers, I have found real gems in my uncle's library of seventy-something old Iranian films. Gheysar is definitely the crown jewel. Don't miss out!

You can purchase Gheysar from

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Niki Tehranchi

By Niki Tehranchi

Tehranchi's features index


Gheysar Bath
Photo essay
By Nader Davoodi

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Behrouz Vossoughi photos


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