Flamingo No. 13 -- Film Review

An Iranian film wanders in an allegorical desert.

Unless he wishes to reside outside his native country or in a prison, an Iranian filmmaker today must resort to allegory or metaphor. Thus, international film festival audiences are left to tease out meanings from a film such as "Flamingo No. 13."

It plays out in an achingly beautiful landscape, scarcely touched by civilization, where a handful of characters exchange rudimentary dialogue interspersed with poetic observations and puzzling obsessions.

Adding to the dilemma for English-speakers, the subtitles show an imperfect grasp of English, so one cannot rely on them to accurately reflect even the basic sense of what is being said, much less subtle implications or idiomatic nuances.

The film comes from first-time feature director Hamid Reza Aligholian, who has worked in advertising and music videos and places on his resume the workshop of Abbas Kiarostami, one of Iranian cinema's current exiles, forced to live abroad to evade the potential wrath of Iran's ruling elite, whose sensibilities are so easily provoked.

Indeed, the film itself concerns exiles, living in a desolate, hardscrabble landscape, which may be the first clue in this allegory from Aligholian and his co-writer, Rasoul Younan. Many of the men in a small settlement -- little more than a collection of decaying houses clinging to a hillside beneath a majestic yet forbidding mountain range -- are "exiles." Watching an official who passes through once a year to make certain everyone is still where he belongs, you gather that they are criminals deported from cramped prison cells to a countryside that, for all its vastness, is just another kind of cell.

One peculiar fellow, Solaiman (Younanr), spends most of his time hunting down a poor flamingo. This is highly illegal, you learn, but nothing can seemingly prevent his obsessive behavior -- not the woman who loves him, Tamay (Baran Zamani), whom he marries without much fanfare, nor local villagers, who caution him against such illicit behavior.

A hunter must hunt, he reasons. One time he even gets the bird in his sight, but cannot pull the trigger since it's so beautiful, which doesn't prevent. Not that it prevents him from heading out the next day to hunt once more. Okay, obsessive, rebellious behavior despite already being an exile -- a metaphor for an Iranian filmmaker today?

Then there's the wife. The second time Solaiman disappears while out hunting -- the first time he went missing for three days -- he does not return. Everyone else concludes he drowned in the sea. (Why would he hunt a flamingo in the sea, you ask? Good question.) But his wife insists they are all wrong. But if it is she who is wrong, it's "a beautiful wrongness," she declares.

Does a beautiful wrongness sum up the hopes and dreams of Iranian artists and intellectuals in the midst of a corrupt and tyrannical religious dictatorship? Perhaps.

A fellow exile, himself in love with Tamay, grows jealous of the couple and crudely tries to insinuate himself between the two lovers. He fails utterly and is himself eventually attacked by another exile for brazenly trying to kidnap the woman.

Shooting in HD Cam, cinematographer Esmaeil Aghajani alternates extreme long shots with close-ups of his actors that help capture a feeling of entrapment in a vast void. Breaking up the monotony, musicians or dancers occasionally break out into traditional ceremonies. Or men gather to gossip, argue and inhale tobacco on hookahs, filing the air with smoke and the soundtrack with sucking noises.

Presumably the hookahs are not metaphorical.

Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival -- Competition
Production companies: Third Script
Cast: Rasoul Younan, Baran Zamani, Saeed Alipour, Abdollah Amir Atashani, Alireza Ghader, Kasagha Keshparvar, Mohammad Taghi Shams Langroudi, Shams Langoudi
Director-editor: Hamid Reza Aligholian
Screenwriter: Rasoul Younan
Producer: Houman Ahmadi Tofighi
Director of photography: Esmaeil Aghajani
Costume designer: Mehdi Deilami
Unrated, 78 minutes