Having read the original book and remembering how angry it made me then, I refused to see THSF in theatres. I know what you are going to say, “How could you not support Shohreh Aghdashloo?” And I have no answer to that except that barring her performance which was excellent as always, I just can't support yet another film that mis-portrays us, no, shows a side that rarely if ever exists. What about our sense of humor? Are we ever going to show the world that? Or is it all just going to be the same old 3rd world drama camouflaged by some imperceptible voodoo-esque cultural tendency? That being said, I can't wait to see “Marmoolak” (See review).
Don't get me wrong, Shohreh is a very good actress, possibly our best. In any other movie she would be great. I think, it's just a shame that she had to debut at the Oscars with this film. But I know that she yearned to play this role, and I agree with her, she played it perfectly. I just don't think the rest of the film was worthy of her breakthrough. One gets the sense that she believed in this role, so maybe she has a perspective on it that I don't, but then again, she immediately bo-toxed up for the Oscars, so who knows who's fooling who (whom?).
The premise of the film bugs me right off. That a former Iranian Colonel would be so dramatic and proud and would hide the fact from all and his family, that he works as a road repair crewman by day, convenience store clerk by night, then sneaks into the lobby of a fancy hotel to change clothes so that no one would see him dressed as a common worker. All to maintain an impossible lifestyle. Maybe it was a true story, but it isn't the norm, and I am tired of us being the freak all the time.
First off, any Iranian former Colonel, doesn't have that kind of dominant pride anymore, and even if he does, it doesn't make him any less pragmatic than anyone in the same situation. He would have long since swallowed it and have made something much more substantial of himself than a street worker. He would, because he could, either be a travel agent, or in real estate, or insurance by now. And his walls would be adorned with agent-of-the-month awards.
Why? Because a colonel has administrative skills, and rarely did the average Iranian colonels, get their hands dirty. You see what I mean? The filmmakers didn't even think of what was plausible. They simply went after the attractively ugly story. Why? Because ugly will sell. How do you sell ugly? Well it sure helps if you pick a subject that people already think is ugly. Ah! The Iranian! Perfect!
Conspiratorial? I won't go that far, but I find it highly interesting that the upcoming Tom Hanks movie “Terminal” which is based on the Iranian man who has been stuck in the Paris airport for years, makes no mention of being an Iranian story. This film, again by Dreamworks, will be about a man from a fictitious former soviet block nation. I guess Tom can't pull off the cliche Iranian accent.
And yes, I know that THSF book was based on a true story about one insane Iranian. But that doesn't make it worthy of noting, certainly not worthy of making it a bestselling book, especially when we live in a country during a time of dangerous eager generalizations. Trust me, every American who saw the film, now thinks every Iranian who owns a Benz is now suspect of lying about his job. They may not believe it, but they will think it. And that's enough to widen the chasm. It's the subliminal thing the film does that bugs me. Paranoid you say? Damn right I'm paranoid! And who told you that?
There's one stereotype thing about the movie that I could buy, and that was the shitty way Americans often treat their parents. And I know not all do. But a lot do. The character played by Jennifer Connolly hung up on her mother who had called too early one morning to ask how she was. “Ok Mother, I'm really tired… CLICK!”
And then there is the continued assumption that Iranians are somehow obsessed with tea. That we are like the Japanese, every serving has to be this trippy formal eastern ritual, complete with the ornate gold tea glass holders, and silver sugar bowl brought to you like lines of coke, every five minutes on a silver platter. I don't know about you, but the last time I had a decent chaie, it was in my 1998 Iran World Cup coffee mug thanks to Mr. Lipton and his bag. 2 packets of Splenda and I'm good.
But I guess it wouldn't have made it if they showed us drinking lattes from Starbucks like everyone else.
And as soon as I got over the tea, in came the next one, that somehow Iranians of course must serve the prerequisite caviar and champagne at all family gatherings. I don't know about you but I haven't had caviar at a family gathering recently. Actually the only caviar I've had recently, came to me from Mehrabad airport a few years ago, when my in-laws brought some for me, thinking because I was half “Kharejee” I would probably enjoy it. All I knew was that when I had some, for some strange reason, I thought I had tasted better caviar years ago in Iran. It went uneaten for weeks and I threw it out when they weren't looking.
The other area of the film that I thought was incorrectly portrayed was in the relationship between the husband (Ben Kingsley) and the wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo). You may disagree, but for some reason this couple was unlike any Iranian couple I have ever seen. When was the last time you saw a man stronger than the wife in an Iranain relationship? I'm sure it exists somewhere, just not usually.
“Listen to me… you will pack our things and we will move tomorrow, Shhh! Don't open your lips, do as I say!”
The reality I see more commonly, is that Iranian couples are often much closer than what was portrayed. Especially after 25 years of living in the US. They have come to a realization that things are different and old ways don't apply, even to old people. But more often than not, the wife pretty much dominates the direction of the family. That is the fair stereotype. But think, a couple in this age was in their thirties during the 70's. That's the disco era baby. There wasn't that much left of the old tradition between couples, even then.
This film showed a strong willed wife, but a highly unusual and implausibly domineering strong husband. Again, I'm sure it exists. I am sure we would like it to exist, for the drama. Somewhere, probably in Southern California there is a bitter brooding, and perpetually pissed off husband who is the head of his family in every way. He's probably unemployed, but his wife works in an Iranian travel agent's office, and he resents her for not taking care of him. He's constantly on about his kids, and they try to ignore him. But other than this one guy (or more), the reality is that Iranian women dominate.
Now before any of you male chauvinists object to any of this, please look at the number of influential women around you before you get yourself in trouble. If there aren't 4 very powerful women in your immediate sphere at any given time, I will eat any size hat you send me. If your wives allow you to. If you still don't believe me, why wasn't Shohreh's husband Houshang Tozie cast in the role of the Father? I mean come on, they must have known he was an actor too. They could have gotten them both for less than what they paid Kingsley. Tozie would have killed in that role.
If you've seen the film, you know that things get worse. A lot worse. The final tribulation this family goes through towards the end, and the pain and suffering they witness as things quickly spiral out of control, I could buy as an Iranian, but they are the kinds of things no one can be expected to endure. It seems where grief, despair, horror and misfortune are concerned, we are all the same.
Finally, I have to say that after all of my harsh criticisms and probably unfair biases against the film's unfair biases, I have to surprisingly say it was a very good film, which as I just said, surprised me. I am frankly shocked I liked it as much as I did. I am not sure if it was because I was so sensitized to the film, expecting it to be bad, that it wasn't as bad as I expected, or if it was simply a really good film. Technically it was very well made too. I did not notice any major flaws with the lighting and the cuts and edits were smooth and the overall timing and speed was right.
I wasn't as impressed with Jennifer Connolly as most were, either. Maybe because she was the protagonist, and I am gullible when it comes to hating the bad guy. But it was a good performance.
My final recommendation? OK fine, you should rent the film. But watch for the stereotypes and talk intelligently about their falsehood to your American friends. And if anyone knows Shohreh, ask her to try to be a bit more selective in her next role, she should be able to afford to be picky now.
[Note: Since the writing of this review Shohreh Aghdashloo has been cast in an upcoming pilot for ABC's 2004 fall lineup called “The Secret Service” in which Shohreh plays the role of a spy handler. Let me guess, she's the mid-east expert right?]