Having already won best screenplay at Iran's Fajr Film Festival, Café Transit is now that country's official entry for the Oscars. How did director/screenwriter Kambuzia Partovi go from having his works banned in Iran to becoming the artistic pride of his country? The answer is that Café Transit is cleverly written so that its domestic message says one thing while its foreign message says the opposite. The Western audience sees a romance between a sensuously forthright European truck driver and an enterprising Iranian widow. We are heartbroken as their love is made impossible by a nightmarish, apparently Islamic custom.
Native Iranian audiences, on the other hand, know that the practice of widows having to marry their dead husband's brother isn't particularly Islamic or Iranian. In their view, the lovers are battling against the absurd anachronisms of a backward Turkic speaking village. Western critics tend to applaud movies that authenticate the “clash of civilizations,” while Iranian cultural authorities reward movies that favorably compare the nation's regressive gender policies against even lower — possibly fictitious — standards. Café Transit is a well crafted piece of international filmmaking that makes Iran appear developmentally stunted to the Western viewer at the same time that it makes the country's mainstream values look culturally superior in the eyes of its domestic audience.
Catering to diverse political agendas assures wider acceptance, but a film does not become a contender for Fajr and the Oscars unless its point of view is expressed with artistic merit. Café Transit is a strong candidate for international filmmaking prizes mostly because the protagonist, Reyhan, is a refreshing twist to the standard determined-woman-struggling-against-tradition persona.
Even before we meet the charismatic heroine, the plot reveals that her real name is not Reyhaneh, but Reyhan (basil) — the same name with the feminine suffix deleted. Thus Kambuzia Partovi prepares us for a story about a woman who will transgress gender barriers. The film fulfills this expectation when Reyhan refuses to close down her late husband's truck stop, choosing instead to use her extraordinary cooking skills to grow the business. Soon truck drivers from all over Europe and Asia are eating at her café on the border of Iran and Turkey.
Reyhan's brother in law, Nasser — to whom truck drivers queuing up for a home cooked meal look no different than men waiting in line at a bordello — urges the widow not to dishonor the family. She should close the café, follow local custom and marry him so that he can provide for her and her two children. Reyhan, who is not a local, refuses to bend to this bizarre custom. She does not love Nasser, moreover he already has a wife. The jilted brother in law's campaign to close down Reyhan's business creates much of the suspense and indignation in Café Transit, particularly since Reyhan's attraction to a Greek truck driver has made her vulnerable to gossip.
For the Iranian viewer, Reyhan's breach of local custom is not a rebellion against the country's mainstream Islamic values. Even though she manages a busy truck stop, she tries to avoid scandal by staying in the kitchen at all times, letting a trusted old male employee deal with her hungry customers. To the Western viewer the need for such precaution is a symptom of life in an intrusively misogynistic society. It creates sympathy for Reyhan. To the traditional Iranian, however, this is proof of the heroine's sense of decorum. It generates respect for her and convinces the audience that the brother in law's concern for the honor of the family has no justification.
Despite her conflict with her brother in law, Reyhan remains as respectful to him as possible. Is this because her patriarchal society punishes protest, or is Reyhan's forbearance a sign of Iranian culture's wisdom and humility? Fereshteh Sadr Orafaiy, who plays Reyhan, does a superb job of disallowing a straightforward answer. Instead, the Reyhan she portrays seems to understand people by way of their needs, not their threat level. The character's natural mastery of the universal language of need is why her café has become home away from home for so many travelers from so many distant cultures.
Though Café Transit is unmistakably feminist, it subscribes to the brand of feminism that presupposes a female intuition for nurturing, specifically homemaking. Reyhan's ability to use flavors, colors, and aromas to create an atmosphere of caring and rootedness is her main ally throughout the movie. This strength gives her success in business, a sense of independence, and a feeling of accomplishment. It also helps her in love. She flirts with Zacharias — the Greek truck driver with whom she falls in love — by sending out plates of food to him, watching him secretly from the kitchen window as he eats.
Orafaiy fashions a potent feminine allure out of Reyhan's passivity. When Zacharias finally tells Reyhan he loves her, she can only walk away without a word, but after a while her widow's black mourning headscarf is gone, replaced with colorful ones. The heroines actions are as quietly forceful as the colors that affect our moods. Art director Hassan Farsi highlights this “feminine touch” very effectively, not only in the sets and costumes but in the amazing food presentations.
As a strong female character, Reyhan also has the power to protect. Besides enhancing the film's feminist credentials in the West, this protectiveness serves a domestic function. The parallel between the outdated customs of this village and the reactionary gender policies of the Islamic Republic, is obvious even to the Iranian viewer, so Partovi mitigates this subversive allegory with a moralizing subplot about a young Russian woman whose Western values have led to a life of vagrancy and sex for favors.
In a proselytizing gesture, Partovi's screenplay has some unscrupulous men dump the homeless Russian woman in front of the café where her dignity is nursed back to health under Reyhan's virtuous and motherly sheltering. There is an emotional scene where both women — neither of whom understand one another's language — cry upon each other's shoulders. In this touching invocation of international sisterhood, the sisters are actually grieving over the devastations of war, not the unfairness of patriarchal systems.
Crediting a female role model with special instincts for nest building, passive influence, and motherliness seems a hackneyed consolation for lack of gender equality, but that is what Café Transit offers its domestic audience. Mindful of Islamic cultural biases, Partovi never argues against a woman's place being in the home; his feminism lies in his expanding the traditional concept of home, not in expanding the traditional concept of woman. Feminists in Iran can only hope the audience will see that the vector of progress from managing a home to managing a café may eventually point to managing a country. Beyond that Partovi knows he cannot go, unless he wants his work banned yet again.
This self censorship is not without artistic penalty. In a scene where Reyhan's Greek admirer dances in front of her, we are not permitted to see the desire in her face. The resulting absence of information is as annoying as a hole in the canvas or a harsh skip on a music CD. A Global Film Initiative discussion guide diplomatically explains away one such scene claiming that the character is being given her privacy. One wonders why in a feminist movie it is not left up to the actress to decide how much privacy she wants to claim in displaying the inner feelings of her character.
The busy truck traffic of goods flowing north and south in front of Reyhan's café constantly reminds us that Iran cannot isolate itself from outside influence. The Oscar committee will be flattered to see an Iranian film's respectful nod to Western feminism, perhaps unaware that Partovi has given Iran's traditional culture the last word in the movie. In the final scene, the Russian girl which Reyhan rescued, is somewhere outside of Iran preparing a dish for her male friends.
“What is this? It's great,” the men ask.
“Mirza Ghasemi,” she replies.
When it comes to culture or ideology, there's no such thing as one-way traffic.