'A Very Ordinary Citizen': Chicago Review

Courtesy of Dreamlab Films

An old man's growing dementia is handled with sly wit and compassion.

This Iranian film co-written by Jafar Panahi takes a biting look at Alzheimer's in contemporary Tehran.

One of the world premieres at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival is an intriguing personal and social drama co-written by Jafar Panahi, who continues to make a mark in films despite being circumscribed by Iranian authorities. This slow but tantalizing film from director Majid Barzegar joins the growing wave of films about older people suffering mental decline.  While the story may not be novel, the directing and acting add a pungent perspective on an increasingly dismaying problem. Critical acclaim should greet this film on festival showings. 

The protagonist, Mr. Safari (Souren Mnatsakanian) lives on his own after his wife left him and his son emigrated.  He survives by pursuing a few daily routines and engaging in minimal contact with neighbors. But his life changes when Sara (Shadi Karamroudi), a young travel agent, contacts Mr. Safari to try to arrange a visit to his son in Canada. Her vibrancy contrasts to his torpor, and he gradually begins to respond to her helpfulness. Unfortunately, his dimming mental faculties lead him to misinterpret her overtures, creating problems for both of them.

The film might have turned into melodrama or mawkish soap opera, but Barzegar takes a more cool, wryly comic approach that plays against any possible sentimentality. The constricting routines of Safari’s life are presented with ironic detachment, though this does not preclude subtle poignancy surrounding the old man’s dilemma. As he begins to take an interest in life again, he intrudes into Sara’s life in ways that make her increasingly uncomfortable. His perspective has become so distorted that he even edges toward criminal activity that the film leaves mainly to our imagination.

Some of the storytelling is deliberately but frustratingly murky, and the static camera can also be offputting. But the film holds our interest, chiefly thanks to the performances. Mnatsakanian has a strong screen presence and manages to engage our sympathy even when he seems to be inexpressive. The actor makes the slightest flickers of emotion highly dramatic. Karamroudi’s innate energy makes an effective contrast.  Even though the characters are at cross purposes, the actors play a duet that is quietly engaging. Minor characters are also skillfully delineated.

With subtlety the director also conveys some of the disorientations of contemporary Tehran.  Nervous bureaucrats and nosy neighbors do not help Mr. Safari’s mental confusion. Some of the scenes are inventively shot and coolly humorous. The ending, for example, which involves an accident during a rainstorm, is ingeniously designed and oddly disquieting. This film may leave you with more questions than answers, but that seems to be what the director and his skillful actors were hoping to achieve.

Cast: Souren Mnatsakanian, Shadi Karamroudi, Nahid Hadadi

Director: Majid Barzegar

Screenwriters: Jafar Panahi, Majid Barzegar

Producers: Majid Modarresi, Saeed Armand

Director of photography: Amin Jafari

Production-costume designer: Leila Naghdi Pari

Editor: Hamidreza Barzegar

No rating, 100 minutes

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