Flavor of the year

High's Iranian film series a mixed bag

Iranian Film Today
Woodruff Arts Center
Sept. 9-Oct. 6

?Though its members often profess a disinterest in trends, popularity contests and the contaminated provinces of mass taste, film criticism is subject to its fads. That bandwagon approach has become especially apparent in the reception of international cinema, in which it's Africa one year, and Hong Kong the next. Such critical flights of fancy, often inspired by truly great films, can also mean that even mediocre examples of the currently "hot" ethnic cuisine get caught up in the big cinematic parade. When advocating the latest foreign cinema, film critics often engage in a tail-chasing strategy of preaching to the converted: They may influence small New York distribution companies to pick up an esoteric treasure or boost attendance at New York's Film Forum, but don't always have the persuasive ability to turn an obscure foreign film into a popular hit. Such is the case with the Iranian cinema, which has recently sent the metropolitan ranks of film critics to expectorating gooey adjectives over this latest "new wave." This up-with-Iran banner has been raised by influential, respected critics like The Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum and alternative newspaper advocates like New York Press film critic Godfrey Cheshire, as well as the lifelong gravy train riders at Lincoln Center (including the New York Film Festival, the in-house newsletter Film Comment, and the Walter Reade theater).

The third local Iranian film series, "Iranian Film Today," at the High is meant to give Atlanta audiences a taste of what those big city critics are swooning about. It features four films that may or may not convince audiences Iranian cinema is this decade's must-have Pokemon.

As is typical in a number of Iranian critical hits (The White Balloon, Children of Heaven, Color of Paradise), several of the films feature children as central characters, a choice which some have speculated allows directors to skirt the sticky issue of adult relationships, which are heavily censored by Iranian film officials. The almost unbearably cutesy-pie The Silence is Dickens by way of Disney, about a blind boy who attempts to save himself and his mother from eviction by taking a long bus ride every day to a job tuning musical instruments. As is often the case in child-centered Iranian films, the psychological burden of poverty on children is heavy, forcing them to play grown-up as they hide life's tragedies from their parents. It is a repeated theme in Iranian films that children are the seers and the enchanted ones who can still feel what grown-ups cannot.

But that gift for emotional insight is painfully overstated in The Silence. Director Mohsen Makhmalbaf has a definite eye for composition and dreamy effect, as he proved in his breakthrough film Gabbeh, but his love of kiddie bathos may leave everyone but Little Mermaid fans a little cold.

The theme of childhood, the treatment of women, censorship and Hollywood are some of the subjects covered in a documentary about the Iranian film industry titled Friendly Persuasion. Almost every notable Iranian film director (including international art house superstar Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf) is interviewed, as well as their unofficial American wrangler, Richard Pena, the Lincoln Center programmer who is perhaps most responsible for bringing Iranian cinema to the critical forefront.

Friendly Persuasion is drably made — shot on video and hamfistedly constructed, interspersing not always astounding insights from the directors (Hollywood films are "violent") with often poorly transferred clips from key Iranian films. To make matters worse, the assembled directors often speak over film clips, so that both their words and the significance of that particular scene are lost. The Iranian directors also have an annoying tendency to speak of "Western" film as one amorphous mass of gunplay and alienation, an estimation of non-Iranian film that is inexcusably simplistic. And for every director who decries Hollywood films (which are banned in Iran), there are others who cite works like Rio Bravo, Catch-22, Being There and Hitchcock as seminal in their sentimental education.

Things pick up when the documentary moves from trite and expected proclamations of the native cinema's subtlety and humanism, to a real analysis of just what the directors struggle against in the rigid, censor-happy, government-controlled film industry.

As fascinating as '30s and '40s Hollywood strictures preventing married couples from sharing a double bed are Islamic film codes that require female actors to be veiled at all times — even in bed — and forbid physical contact between unmarried couples, thus keeping actors playing husband and wife at a preposterous physical distance from one another. Pena and others argue (as some have for classical Hollywood films) that such restrictions, ironically, often force a greater creativity from directors.

Considering these strict limitations imposed on directors, it's surprising that a film like 1992's Nargess would make it past the eagle-eyed censors even in script form. Though it honors the local movie custom of keeping its central married couple physically distant, this hardboiled noir transposed to modern Tehran features profanity, dysfunctional families, domestic abuse and a plotline centered on a creepy May-December marriage between Machiavellian lady crook Afagh and the boy Adel she found on the streets and raised to be her criminal cohort/lover. When Adel falls in love with a beautiful, naive village girl, Nargess, Afagh helps him keep his criminal past a secret by posing as his mother and extolling her "son's" virtues. Nargess evolves from a merely sordid drama of the lower rungs of Iranian society into a truly depressing one as Nargess' apparent escape from desperate poverty at home turns out to be no escape at all in this consistently entertaining thriller.

More typical of the Iranian propensity for self-reflexive stories — as much about the process of filmmaking as traditional plotting — Moment of Innocence (1996) suggests Truffaut's film-about-filmmaking Day for Night. Also made by Makhmalbaf, Innocence is based on a definitive moment in the director's life when the young revolutionary was imprisoned by the Shah for stabbing a policeman. Censored by Iranian officials for years, the film reenacts this event from Makhmalbaf's own life. A challenging philosophical treatise on fate and the past, the film has the director and the policeman he stabbed meet to make a film of the event. The policeman is especially memorable, a captivatingly sympathetic dim bulb who's suffered for years from the delusion that he also met the love of his life the day he was stabbed. The film suggests a loss of innocence on not only a personal level, leaving you feeling genuinely sorry for the aimless policeman's wounded obsession with his former youth, but for a national loss of innocence ushered in by the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

While the filmmakers in Friendly Persuasion debate the merits of their country's restrictions, especially where depicting women on screen is concerned, it's hard to shake the chill of the flocks of anonymous women who drift through the city streets, draped in black and hiding their faces from passers-by in Moment of Innocence. The renaissance in Iranian films has offered the possibility of opening up the nation's cultural borders to the West, but these films reaffirm silently, how men still call all the shots, on the set and off.

Films at the High presents Moment of Innocence Sept. 9, Friendly Persuasion Sept. 16, The Silence Sept. 22 and Nargess Oct. 6. All screenings are at 8 p.m. in Rich Auditorium, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. General admission is $5. 404-733-5000.