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13 is one of those debut films that turns heads, and is especially striking because it hails from Iran. The subject is banal enough – a moping teen with problems at school, whose parents are getting a divorce – but the visuals are on the order of cutting edge European art house, boasting a trendy look and droll, unpredictable story-telling that turns the tale into something gripping and modern. It was a stand-out at the Fajr festival and should be a persuasive calling card for 33-year-old writer-director Houman Seyedi. Visual Media is selling at the EFM.
To make the point that this isn’t your usual Iranian drama, the film opens with a car surreally flying across the screen. This image remains inexplicable until the last scenes, but alerts the viewer to pay attention to Seyedi’s sometimes cryptic visual codes.
Bemani (Yasna Mirtahmasb) is a monosyllabic 13-year-old boy from a lower middle-class household who helplessly looks the other way while Dad is beating up Mom. Yet as separation nears, he chooses to remain at home with his father (Amir Jafari) and drum set rather than pack his bags and follow Mom out of the house. Shot in immobile close-ups like a photograph, his morose, hang-dog face and defiant silence mark him as a problem child from the start.
At school he is being terrorized by a bully. Just as he’s cornered and about to be pulverized, two 20-something toughs even scarier than his aggressor come to his rescue. They turn out to be small-time pushers who steal and scratch cars for fun. Their leader is Sami (a glaring, commanding Azadeh Samadi), an addict who lives on the street and hangs out with her adoring lover Arash (the taboo word “lover” is actually used in the English subtitles, though no shows of affection are filmed) and an addled friend. Though she’s barely one step up from a bag lady, she runs her mini-gang with punk cool, and generously allows Bemani to tag along as a cocky junior member. The dangers are apparent, but for the boy it’s a way out of an unbearable household.
Apart from a memorable verbal slug-out with her husband, the mother (Rima Raminfar) stays pretty much out of the picture, allowing Seyedi to develop the dysfunctional father-son relationship as a convincing downward spiral into non-communication. From the principal’s room to the police station, Dad has to pick up a son he barely knows and come to terms with a degenerating situation, one that goes totally out of control in the film’s tense final scenes which skirt genre fare. Jafari plays him well, not as a villain, but as a tired man too overworked and distracted to figure out what’s going on in his son’s head.
Though not explicitly a film about Iranian society, its context of generalized violence – on the street, in the home – is impressive. When the mother locks herself in Bemani’s room, Dad puts his fist through the door, leaving a hole that somewhat comically reappears in later scenes. At the sight of a terrified boy being hit, passersby walk on without a thought. Bemani takes his anger out on trees and on his neighbors, playing music at top volume in the middle of the night and beating his drums, screaming. Though his character is not all that focused, Mirtahmasb (son of documentary filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who co-directed This Is Not a Film with Jafar Panahi) plays alternately, and sometimes simultaneously, a naive adolescent and a zombie street-walker off his head and seething with rage.
The film’s visuals are crucial to its sophisticated look and atmosphere. Veteran cinematographer Ali Tabrizi composes complex shots out of buildings and architectural spaces, as in a multi-layered scene when the father throws a crucial document out of an upper storey window and it gets stuck mid-way down. His textured photography gives a kind of slummy cool to the interiors as well.
Composer Sharmin Mehdizadeh is consistently interesting and a few of the song choices, like the rollicking Italian “Tu vuo’ fa’ l’americano,” are very funny in context.
Venue: Fajr Film Festival, Teheran, Jan. 30, 2014.
Cast: Amir Jafari, Azadeh Samadi, Rima Raminfar, Vishka Asayesh, Yasna Mirtahmasb
Director: Houman Seyedi
Screenwriter: Houman Seyedi
Producer: Saeed Saadi
Director of photography: Ali Tabrizi
Production designer/costumes: Amir Hossein Shodsi, Baran Kosari
Editor: Houman Seyedi
Music: Sharmin Mehdizadeh
Sales Agent: Visual Media Institute
No rating, 90 minutes.
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