Traditional ideas about male virility and a woman’s place in the home are challenged in Jafar Panahi’s allusive think piece 3 Faces (Se Rokh). It is the fourth feature film he has made since being officially banned from directing films by the Iranian authorities. As deceptively simple as its title, which refers to three actresses of times past, present and to come, the no-budget 3 Faces is charming Iranian cinema at its purest. Defiantly modern in its liberating message about freedom of choice, it harks back to the great cinema verite films like Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us. Here, too, a man from the city travels to a remote mountain village on a mission that will plumb the depths of stifling traditional beliefs.
Though his passport has been confiscated by the Iranian authorities (the Cannes Film Festival followed sad tradition and left his seat empty at the film’s red- carpet screening in competition), Panahi is clearly able to move around inside the country. Playing himself, he appears in the film driving his SUV (again, Kiarostami’s ghost haunts the screen) into the northwest of the country near Turkey and Azerbaijan.
The story opens with a dramatic video selfie taken by a hysterical girl (Marziyeh Rezaie) who accuses famous actress Behnaz Jafari of ignoring her pleas for help. Her greatest desire is to become an actress and she has, in fact, been accepted into a prestigious conservatory in Tehran, but her family refuses to let her leave home to study. At the end of the video, which is filmed inside a cave, she puts a rope around her neck and hangs herself.
This upsetting video has been sent to Panahi by her friend, who apparently arrived too late to save her. And Panahi has pulled Jafari (also playing herself) off a film set to confront her with it. Together they make the long, overnight drive to a Turkish-Azeri speaking area of Iran, high in the mountains, to try to locate the girl and find out if she is really dead.
This elaborate setup, complete with Jafari flipping out in the seat beside him as Panahi hypothesizes that the clip is probably real, will fool no one. It would have been more realistic to leave their strange mission more of a mystery that would gradually be unveiled. Instead, a grim black humor underlies Panahi’s provocations and Jafari’s nervous emoting as they discuss why, why, why the girl saddled her with her problems.
Jafari has a sudden suspicion: Panahi recently approached her with a screenplay about suicide. Could this all be a trick at her expense? If so, she promises vendetta.
The car sequence is filmed in a single elaborate take that draws attention to itself and promises wearying technical bravura ahead. Instead, the flashy camerawork subsides and the story takes over when they reach the first mountain village and hit the jackpot. Though the locals are hardly forthcoming with information, they eventually find Marziyeh’s humble home. The girl has been missing for three days. There is a cave nearby.
Panahi, who was once Kiarostami’s assistant, lacks the master’s gift of wry humor, which made his work so human and enjoyable to watch. Here the tone is much drier, even in the oddest conversations. A farmer whose prize bull has fallen and is blocking the road goes off on a long riff about cattle breeding and how his stud drives the heifers wild. The topic of masculinity is again brought up that night. An old-timer explains to Jafari, who has rather bravely wandered into the village after dark, about the quaint traditional uses of the foreskin after a boy’s circumcision. When he tells her that a boy’s destiny depends on his foreskin, we get the point.
The counterpoint to all this is the stony silence surrounding any show of independence on the part of females. After getting the cold shoulder from the village over her dream to become an actress (“We don’t want any entertainers here”), young Marziyeh has been forcibly engaged to be married in the hope she will settle down and forget it. Conventional wisdom says that “everything falls apart without rules.”
But there is another uppity woman to snub: the former actress, dancer and star Shahrazade, who lives alone in a small house outside the village. Remarkably, she never appears on screen at all. If she is meant to be the “third face,” after Jafari and Marziyeh, of pre-revolutionary cinema, it’s significant she is invisible. She tells Jafari she’s bitter over the way she was treated by her film directors and seems content to live as a recluse, writing poetry and painting landscapes. Just as the villagers fear, she sets an example of independence for the young, harboring runaways and encouraging them to think for themselves.
The three main characters are all vividly sketched. Panahi plays the puppet master in the car, a steady, reliable beacon of logic. With carrot red hair sticking out of her scarf, Jafari (A House Built on Water, Lantouri) is a woman who first impulsively gives way to her emotions, then rethinks the situation and deeply connects with people. As the aspiring actress, Rezaie is a fresh, outspoken young woman who seems unlikely to be cowed by anybody. Speaking of which, the final shot is the lyrical view of a winding road walked by two single women with minds of their own, while truckloads of lowing heifers are being driven into town. A nice metaphor that is as subtle as this pleasing, simply shot work.
Production company: Jafar Panahi Film Production
Cast: Behnaz Jafari, Jafar Panahi, Marziyeh Rezaei, Maedeh Erteghaei
Director: Jafar Panahi
Screenwriters: Jafar Panahi, Nader Saeivar
Director of photography: Amin Jafari
Production designer: Leila Naghdi Pari
Editors: Mastaneh Mohajer, Panah Panahi
World sales: Celluloid Dreams
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (competition)