Down and out in Iran

High Museum presents Iranian Film Festival

If the Iranian films screening at the High are representative, the regional cinema has a strain of melancholy a mile long. Its spiritual gloominess matches even cinema's greatest crepe hangers and existential navel-gazers like Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky or Andrej Wajda.

The protagonists of the films in Iranian Film Today are rich and poor, women and men, children and adults. But all of the characters in these films share a similarly dire set of circumstances. The women recently released from prison in The Circle find their freedom in the outside world just as curtailed in a society that imposes unbelievable restrictions on female behavior. The family of Kurdish children in A Time For Drunken Horses work unceasingly to pay for an operation that will prolong the life of their handicapped brother.

Even Iran's bourgeoisie, surrounded by material wealth and professions that don't demand physical toil, brood and doubt and express a common national bond of suffering. The first film in 20 years from noted Iranian director Bahman Farmanara (after his 1978 film Tall Shadows of the Wind was banned by Iranian censors), Smell of Camphor, Scent of Jasmine (Sept. 8) illustrates this apparently far-ranging, cross-cultural discontent.

On the five-year anniversary of his beloved wife's death, Bahman Farjami (Farmanara) is haunted by intimations of his own mortality. His production of a film on Iranian funeral customs for Japanese television leads him on a research odyssey that is really just a dress rehearsal for his own funeral. On the way to the cemetery where his wife is buried, Bahman picks up a woman at the side of the road carrying her dead baby. At his wife's grave, he learns that the plot reserved for himself next to his dead wife now contains a stranger's body. Over the course of the film, Bahman begins to imagine his own demise, and the subtle implication is that in Iran's climate of repression, an atmosphere of spiritual death is inescapable. The same heavy, bruised mood of existential wandering found in Abbas Kiarastami's acclaimed Taste of Cherry, where a man plots his own suicide, permeates Farmanara's dark and sardonic film.

The Circle (Sept. 15) opens, like the totems of death in Camphor, under foreboding circumstances. A withered grandmother peers through a small window in a hospital maternity ward to hear the first news of her granddaughter's birth. Horrified by what she is told, the black-draped grandmother makes the nurses double-check the baby's sex before she brays, "The in-laws will be furious!" Far from a welcome occasion, the birth of a daughter in Iran begins an arduous life as a second-class citizen.

The various women portrayed in The Circle live like hunted animals, and director Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon) uncompromisingly depicts that miserable reality as these women move furtively on crowded streets, where they are propositioned, offered rides and automatically found suspicious for being unaccompanied by a man.

A film that imagines life for Iranian women as nothing short of nightmarish, The Circle suggests that Iranian censors are either becoming less strict, or filmmakers are simply becoming more covert in criticizing their country's fundamentalist government. The filmmaker is clear from the film's inception that the lot of Iranian women is grim. They are an unwanted burden at birth, tainted even into adulthood, as shown by a group of grown women recently released from prison. In one of The Circle's most harrowing scenes, a mother takes her small daughter, dressed in a cheerful red-and-white outfit, and abandons her on the nighttime street. As she whispers to a woman who watches her crouching behind a car, her deepest hope is that some nice family will take her daughter in.

While the women of The Circle struggle to go about their business in a culture that regards them as second-class citizens, the children in A Time for Drunken Horses (Sept. 22) seem entirely outside the realm of even that unbalanced social economy. A kind of invisible caste, the poor Kurdish children in 30-year-old director Bahman Ghobadi's woe-filled film work feverishly wrapping glasses in newspaper for shipping, and frantically perform any other small service. Each job performed in Drunken has a Sisyphean quality, suggesting tasks so back-breaking and impossible, they offer no escape from desperate poverty.

Like photographer Mary Ellen Mark's heartbreaking images of Third World children or Luis Bunuel's treatment of the slums of Mexico in Los Olvidados, the pariah children in Drunken scramble for pittances, shipped like a load of cabbages into the city to work its bustling market. Ameneh (Ameneh Ekhtiar-Dini) and her 12-year-old brother Ayoub (Ayoub Ahmadi) work tirelessly, side by side in the market until Ayoub sees a chance to make more money carrying black market goods from Iran across the mountains into Iraq.

On his first journey over the mountains Ayoub learns a hard lesson when the men who retained the laborers won't pay up. In Drunken, children are in direct competition with adults, who show them no mercy. A boy about Ayoub's age working in an Iraqi bar tells him with all the wisdom of a jaded gumshoe, "Get the money before you agree to carry a shipment." In matters of exploitation, child and adult are entirely equal, and neither is any different from the mules carrying enormous truck tires on their backs over mountain trails.

Ayoub and Ameneh's survival imperative is clear: They must work to feed themselves. But the thing that gives their labors meaning — and also pathos — is the children's love for their malformed dwarf brother, Madi (Mehdi Ekhtiar-Dini), who requires constant pills and shots to stay alive and will need an operation to survive any longer. As long as the children have Madi their labor doesn't seem futile; they are the caretakers and saviors of this frailer, helpless child. They fuss over Madi as if he were their own baby, kissing his face, carrying him through the snow.

Ghobadi's film, the first by a Kurdish director (who went on to win a 2000 Camera d'Or at the Cannes film festival), is about the hardships endured by the Kurdish people and by children living in poverty. On another, deeper level it shows how fiercely an idea of family is guarded and how devastating its dissolution can be, as when an older sister barters herself into marriage so her new in-laws will pay for Madi's operation.

A Dickensian tale of poverty, hardship and unceasing woe, the film's only emotional release valve is the cruel, beautiful wintry landscape, which ultimately reinforces the loneliness of the human figure, alone and dwarfed by this hard, pitiless place.

Also on the Iranian Film Today bill is Two Women, Tahmineh Milani's drama of women on two diverging matrimonial paths set against the backdrop of the first years of the Iranian Revolution. And that tumultuous period in Iranian history has come back to haunt Milani. Last week, Iran's Revolutionary Court arrested the feminist director for her film The Hidden Half, which has been accused of slandering Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. The first arrest of a filmmaker in years, the situation proves that despite a national cinema known for its insights, political courage and realism, such artistic expression still carries a high penalty.

Iranian Film Today screenings are held at 8 p.m. in Rich Auditorium in the Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. All films are presented in their original language with English subtitles. Admission is $5, $4 for seniors, students and museum members. 404-733-4436.??