Pothole -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

An offbeat variation on the post-earthquake film familiar from Iranian movies like Abbas Kiarostami's "And Life Goes On ...," "Pothole" forgoes sentiment and optimism for cynical reality in its mock-serious tale about an aged mechanic who has lost his home and tries to survive by repairing cars that hit the dangerous potholes he has dug on a remote mountain road.

In his first feature, writer-director Ali Karim shows a strongly personal voice and outlook. This is a true niche art film that will have to claw its way to foreign audiences, who will no doubt appreciate it.

The mechanic is a tough old bird, camped out in a makeshift "garage" on an arid plain where he lives with a mysterious, unseen wife. The camera always frames this strange building face-on from a distance, making us curious to know what goes on behind its locked gates.

In pure Kiarostami style, we ride along in the cars of people who happen to be passing by on the mountain road, listening to their conversations until boom, their tires burst or their front axle cracks in a wicked trench that lies in wait for travelers. So Karim offers up little slices of Iranian life: a young middle-class wife and child traveling with her obviously unfaithful husband; a big-wig politician and his escort; television reporters exploiting others' misery; and a poor family on the move.

After each well-constructed accident the routine is repeated, as the mechanic miraculously appears out of nowhere with his tow truck. His haughty pride keeps conversation to a minimum with his unknowing victims, who willingly pay up to get back on the road.

The serial nature of the breakdowns gives them a deadpan humor that keeps the mood light and floating, while it leaves room for doubt about whether the pothole-digger is more victim or criminal. He is played with fine ambiguity by Mostafa Tari, who has the craggy nobility of a Shakespearean actor.

Ambiguity flies out the window, however, in a tritely moralistic ending that feels wholly gratuitous and spoils the end of the story.

The film is shot with striking simplicity and clarity, thanks to neophyte cinematographer Morteza Hodaei's cleanly memorable images. Sitting outside in his junkyard on a beat-up chair with his water pipe, tea kettle and a radio, the old man stirs up pity, compassion and a few laughs.

The only indulgent note is an overlong scene showing some underground musicians on their way to play for the earthquake victims, whose lead singer (played by the director himself) is given the chance to sing four love songs in a row.

Venue: Venice Film Festival, Critics Week
Production company: Mixstudio
Cast: Mostafa Tari, Sina Razani, Siamak Ehsaei, Soheyla Mashhadi, Sayna Mohimi.
Director/screenwriter: Ali Karim
Producer: Majid Motalebi
Director of photography: Morteza Hodaei
Production designer: Danial Jabbari
Music: Amir Tavassoli
Editor: Behzad Mosleh
Sales Agent: Mehdi Abdollahzadeh
No rating, 100 minutes