'Tale of the Sea' ('Hekayat-e Darya'): Film Review

Courtesy of Dream Lab Films
The Iranian filmmaker’s most personal and touching film to date.

Director Bahman Farmanara plays a writer who has lost his nerve in a drama co-starring Fatemeh Motamed-Arya and Leila Hatami.

Tale of the Sea (Hekayat-e Darya) is Bahman Farmanara’s resonant elegy to the conclusion of an artistic era and his salute to a generation of Iranian writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers who are leaving the scene. Abbas Kiarostami, who died just over a year ago, is the name most international viewers will recognize, but many more are mentioned in this simple, atmospheric tale. It is the writer-director-producer’s most personal film since Smell of Camphor, Fragance of Jasmine and has the same kind of melancholy wistfulness. A starry cast including Fatemeh Motamed-Arya (Gilane, Men at Work), Leila Hatami (A Separation) and Ali Mosaffa (The Past) should help this quiet work from Dream Labs find appreciative upscale audiences. It was screened at the Fajr film market.   

Happily, the runaway symbolism of some of the director’s earlier films is considerably toned down here, leaving room for an emotional response to the characters. The utterly simple, unpretentious shooting style fits well with the equally straightforward story, foregrounding key relationships in the writer’s circle. Of course, there is ample room to read in references to and commentary on contemporary Iran.

The stately cast is lead by Farmanara himself in the role of Taher Mohebi, an ailing writer who has spent three years in a mental institution teetering on the edge of schizophrenia. Now his doctor (Mosaffa) is ready to release him into the care of his wife Jaleh (Motamed Arya), but is dismayed to hear her announce she intends to file for divorce. Apparently his depression makes him unbearable to live with. But on the doctor’s advice, she puts off telling Taher she’s leaving him and they settle uneasily into their airy house by the sea.

Puttering around his office on a new book, Taher is a lumbering Harold Bloom figure who insulates himself from the world with books and music and who quaintly writes on a manual typewriter. He calls old age a “prostate party” and casts a cold eye on the world, but has a warm heart for Jaleh and those who come to him in need. More than a bona fide character, he seems like the gentle, witty screen transposition of the filmmaker himself.

On his long walks on the beach and in nearby parks, Taher encounters figures from his past like a desperate young political activist (Saber Abar, About Elly) who was once his student, and a supportive elderly friend (veteran Ali Nassirian) who turns out to have been “assigned to eternity” many years ago. He is a hallucination, but a comforting one.

There is much that is theatrical in the screenplay, especially noticeable in the sharp, pointed dialogue. Making her unexpected entrance as in a play, Parvaneh (Hatami) turns up announced from abroad and informs Taher she is his daughter. Her mother, his secret lover, didn’t tell him she was pregnant when she left Iran, and the girl only found out recently who her father is. He invites her to stay with them for a week or two, which is the last straw for the childless Jaleh, played with great dignity and intelligence by Motamed-Arya.

The third-act drama feels unreal and tacked on with the obvious intent of forcing Taher back into the world.

Peyman Yazdanian’s score is dominant in creating the film’s mournful tone, echoing Keyvan Moghadam’s dreamy sets and DP Farshad Mohamadi’s fog-shrouded seascapes where Taher evades reality.

Production company: Iris Films
Cast: Bahman Farmanara, Fatemeh Motemad Arya, Leila Hatami, Saber Abar, Ali Nassirian, Roya Nonahali, Ali Mosaffa, Pantea Panahiha
Director, screenwriter, producer: Bahman Farmanara
Director of photography: Farshad Mohamadi
Production designer: Keyvan Moghadam
Costume designer: Sarah Samiei
Editor: Abbas Ganjavi
Music: Peyman Yazdanian
World sales: DreamLab Films
Venue: Fajr Film Festival (Film Market)

97 minutes