The Last Step: Karlovy Vary Film Review

 Poetic meditation on love and death in contemporary Tehran.

Writer-director Ali Mosaffa's prize-winning drama features "A Separation" star Leila Hatami and serves as yet another reminder that Iran is awash with world-class film-makers.

Karlovy Vary - Blending elements of whodunit mystery, love triangle and poetic meditation on mortality, The Last Step is a muddled but mostly engrossing drama from contemporary Iran which had its world premiere last week at the Karlovy Vary film festival, winning the Best Actress award and International Critics’ Prize. With Iranian cinema enjoying unprecedented global attention following the Oscar-winning critical and commercial success of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, this lesser film seems likely to earn further festival buzz and possible niche box office abroad - if only because director Ali Mosaffa’s female lead, and off-screen wife, is A Separation co-star Leila Hatami.

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Looking more than ever like a young Isabella Rossellini, Hatami has less screen time here than Mosaffa, who not only writes and directs but also co-stars. She plays Leili, an actress, while he plays her screen husband Koshrow, a troubled architect wrestling with marital tensions and a potentially grave medical diagnosis. He is also dead, as he cheerfully informs us from the offset in a sardonic voiceover that recalls William Holden in Sunset Boulevard or Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. Reviewing recent events in non-linear order, the film teasingly untangles the emotionally complex relationships and multiple possible causes behind his untimely death.

The Last Step is partly based on both Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich and James Joyce’s The Dead, although the rich tapestry of song, poetry and gallows humour woven into the narrative goes right back to classical Persian literature. The non-linear structure gives it an impressionistic, opaque feel that sometimes feels unnecessarily confusing. But Mosaffa also throws in some comic relief to sweeten all this arthouse navel-gazing, notably a skateboarding scene that leads to a random encounter between his character and a former school bully.

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Finely acted and crisply shot on 35mm, including some strikingly beautiful footage of Iran’s mountainous hinterlands, The Last Step delivers its potentially grim and melodramatic subject matter with a pleasingly playful lightness. Inevitably, this intimate domestic drama does not pack the same emotional and political punch as A Separation, although the plot does coincidentally touch on divorce, dementia and Iranian émigrés in Europe. Ultimately, this is yet another reminder that Iran is awash with world-class film-makers, even when the stories they tell feel a little too slight and self-indulgent.

Venue: Karlovy Vary film festival, premiere screening, July 4

Production companies: Road Movies Productions

Cast: Leila Hatami, Ali Mosaffa, Alireza Aghakhani

Director: Ali Mosaffa

Writer: Ali Mosaffa

Producer: Ali Mosaffa

Cinematography: Alireza Barazandeh

Editor: Fardin Sahebzaman

Sales company: Iranian Independents

Rating TBC, 88 minutes