Rhino Season (Fasle Kargadan): Toronto Review

Dreamlike imagery is a perfect fit for moving tale of a long-term prisoner's release

Exiled Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi goes to Iraq and Turkey to film a story of capricious political imprisonment.

TORONTO — Three decades of political imprisonment might as well be a death sentence in Rhino Season, Bahman Ghobadi's haunting feature that crafts fiction from the inspiration of real-life Kurdish-Iranian poet Sadegh Kamangar. Co-star Monica Bellucci may attract much of the attention Stateside, but the film's ravishing aesthetic and multiple points of political interest will make it fascinating to many cineastes, who should give it a warm reception at fests and arthouses.

VIDEO: Toronto 2012: THR Hosts Toronto Film Festival Cocktail Party For Top Industry Players At The Thompson Hotel

As the film's protagonist Sahel, a poet imprisoned during Iran's Islamic Revolution, actor Behrouz Vossoughi surely drew upon his own experience of being removed from his culture: The actor, once a superstar in Iran, fled in 1978 and has been relegated to penny-ante American film and TV work since. Ghobadi himself has been exiled from the country since making the provocative No One Knows About Persian Cats in 2009. (Rhino Season was shot in Iraq and Turkey.)

Here, Sahel is imprisoned at the same time as his wife Mina (Monica Bellucci), the daughter of one of the Shah's commanders. He is accused of writing political poems; she is ordered to divorce him in renunciation, and is jailed when she refuses. They are allowed to visit each other only once -- a cruel conjugal visit in which both of them must remain hooded.

Mina's former driver Akbar (Yilmaz Erdogan), who was always obsessed with her, has worked his way into the new regime, and exploits her in various ways. He gets Mina released from jail early, but continues to manipulate her, convincing her that Sahel has died. When Sahel gets out after 30 years, he must track his wife and children to Turkey, watching them from afar while trying to see a way back into their lives.

PHOTOS: Toronto Film Festival Day 7: 'Smashed,' 'A Royal Affair' Premiere 

Vossoughi, looking much younger than his 74 years, has barely a line of dialogue in the film. His eyes tell the story eloquently, watchful and heartbroken, confused as he witnesses scraps of his family's current life that he can't quite piece together. The film, echoing his state of mind, blends past and present, dream and reality in a way that discourages literal readings but serves the emotional thrust well. The voice we hear most is Bellucci's, in voiceover, as she reads lines of Sahel's poems in an even, somnambulant tone.

The cryptic allusions in those poems make more sense as the story unfolds, and in other cases the action onscreen seems to bend itself to Sahel's metaphors: Turtles rain from the sky, rhinos charge across a cracked-earth plain. DP Touraj Aslani renders these visions in bleached colors, often playing with light as if to recreate the altered perception of a man who hasn't been in the sun for half his life. The film's final scenes afford multiple readings, which will frustrate some viewers, but seems perfectly appropriate for a story whose protagonists spend decades not knowing what is real and what exists only in memory.

Production Companies: Mij Film, BKM Film

Cast: Behrouz Vossoughi, Monica Bellucci, Yilmaz Erdogan

Director-Screenwriter-Producer: Bahman Ghobadi

Director of photography: Touraj Aslani

Production designer: Ali Daryai

Music: Kayhan Kalhor

Editor: Valerie Loiseleux

Sales: Wild Bunch

PG, 103 minutes