Barre's Silence: IDFA Review

Fine featurette on an underground Iranian blood-sport packs vivid, insightful material into its brief running-time.

Mehrdad Ahmadpour and Morvarid Peyda's mid-length documentary penetrates the shady world of traditional but illicit bull-fighting in northern Iran.

A startlingly fresh and original vision of Iran is presented by 68-minute documentary Barre's Silence, the accomplished and highly promising debut from multi-tasking newcomers Mehrdad Ahmadpour and Morvarid Peyda. A standout of this year's IDFA at Amsterdam, its unorthodox length may render it only suitable for festivals and TV channels -- as was the case with Nicolas Steiner's Swiss/German variant Battle of the Queens (2011.) But programmers in both spheres should certainly check out this distinctive twist on well-worn sports-movie themes.

The protagonist here is quite literally a "raging bull," bellowing bovine Barre (pronounced bar-eh) having become a considerable regional superstar in Iran's Caspian-adjoining Gilan province through his ring-prowess. The traditional form of bullfighting depicted here is a world away from the more famous matador version practiced in Spain, with the animals locking together in direct one-on-one combat, their horns filed to sharp points for maximum goring potential. The consequences are often bloody, sometimes even fatal, and there are several scenes here that may prove too much for squeamish viewers.

But the directors, who also handle all technical duties with the exception of Mohammad Sadegh Tasbihi's sound-design, provide ample rewards for those willing to endure the occasional spells of harrowing material. This is an unpretentious but nuanced little film with plenty of humor and deft insights that accumulate into a penetrating examination of masculinity.

The Iran we see here is astonishingly secular: these men drink, gamble and even take drugs (there's a whole sub-plot involving crystal meth), with hardly any mention of Islam apart from the occasional 'inshallah' during the dialogue. We could easily be in rural Ireland, Poland or France -- indeed Barre's Silence emerges as a worthy descendant of Robert Bresson's 1966 donkey-centric classic Balthazar, with the colossal but hapless Barre suffering for the sins of the humans who frantically wager on his explosive matches and ceaselessly beef about his ownership.

Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (First Appearance Competition), 25 November 2013
Directors / Screenwriters / Producers / Production company / Directors of photography: Mehrdad Ahmadpour, Morvarid Peyda
Sales: Journeyman Pictures
No MPAA rating, 68 minutes