Tales (Gheseh-ha): Fajr Review
Master filmmaker Rakhshan Bani-Etemad returns with a strong vision of contemporary Iran
Revisiting the social concerns of her previous nine features and multiple documentaries, top Iranian director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad offers an up-to-the-minute portrait of her country in the throes of bureaucracy, drug abuse, single motherhood, prostitution and a host of other problems. The result is darkly unsettling and less fascinating than the original films, but it’s still a Bani-Etemad work full of emotional confrontations and on-the-money acting from Iran's finest, able to turn familiar social issues into watchable drama. Though finished some time ago, the Noori Pictures release is only now out of the drawer and ready to make brisk festival rounds.
The film opens on a lonely taxi driver who reluctantly picks up a pretty young mother and child. When he realizes the woman has no clear destination or money to pay the fare, his first reaction is to dump them; then, in the classic Iranian car scene, they start talking and a horrible truth dawns on him, stirring a bit of compassion.
Compassion is what the audience will feel for most of the characters here, chosen from the lowliest, loneliest outcasts in the city. An old lady (Golab Adineh) who can’t stop coughing is standing in line at some ministry. She begs the man next to her to help her fill out a form requesting that her pension be paid from a factory where she worked long years. But he has his own problems to deal with, which explode in a life-or-death tussle with a heartless functionary in a darkly realistic scene teetering on the edge of ferocious satire.
Mrs. Toba, the hacking woman, reappears later in a beautifully shot sketch filmed inside a mini-bus in one single take, perhaps the film’s finest moment. The unpaid factory workers have organized themselves in a pitiful attempt to get somebody’s attention, and have appointed her their spokesperson. The idea is simple, the shooting concise and it’s all very effective in making the viewer feel as nauseously helpless as the bus passengers.
Another very touching tale is shot as excruciating domestic comedy. An illiterate factory worker (Farhad Aslani) becomes insanely jealous when his loving spouse receives a letter from the man who once hired her for a “temporary marriage”, one of Shiite Iran’s more bizarre institutions. To find out what it says, he has to ask his small son, and then her, to read it to him. Aslani and Fatemeh Motamed-Arya, who played the mother of a disabled soldier in Bani-Etemad’s Gilaneh, take the viewer on an emotional roller-coaster that alternately soars towards tragedy and dips back into comedy.
A recurrent theme in the director’s work is her concern for women, and not just in relationship to men, but in their struggle to be mothers, lovers and bread-winners. She has often coupled female predicaments with serious issues like drug addiction (Mainline, Under the Skin of the City), and here there are two stories that touch on these themes. In a drug rehab facility, a social worker and former addict named Nargess is terrorized by her violent, estranged husband who is hooked on crystal meth and who has already thrown acid in her face. The doors to melodrama open with a shriek when he comes looking for her.
In the film’s final tale, explicitly set in “Spring 2011” when the film was being finished, Sara (the fine Baran Kosari) playsa social worker accompanying a shaken young woman, who has just attempted suicide, to rehab. The institute’s van driver (Peyman Moaadi, star of A Separation), about the same age as Sara, engages her in a tense dialogue whose subtext is his attraction towards her. As things heat up, their tedious argument turns into another Kiarostami car scene where a man and woman find themselves trapped in a small enclosed space and are forced to communicate. Though the actors are gallantly determined to go deep into their characters, it goes on much longer than necessary and ends the film on a note of strong ambiguity.
With all the tonal shifts, it is a wonder that the film has a cohesive style at all, but all these stories are held together by an underlying thread of anguish and struggle, while the actors move through the symbolic light and shadows of cinematographer Koohyar Kalari.
Venue: Fajr Film Festival (Iranian competition), Teheran, Feb. 4, 2014
Cast: Baran Kosari, Peyman Moaadi, Fatemeh Motamed-Arya, Farhad Aslani, Golab Adineh, Saber Abar, Bahareh Daneshgar, Mohammad Reza Forutan, Shahrokh Forutanian, Babak Hamidian, Mehdi Hashemi, Negar Javaherian, Rima Raminfar, Habib Rezaei, Atefeh Razavi, Mehraveh Sharifinia, Khosro Shahraz, Fujan Arefpur, Hassan Majuni
Director: Rakhshan Bani-Etemad
Screenwriters: Rakhshan Bani-Etemand, Farid Mostafavi
Producer: Rakhshan Bani-Etemad
Executive producer:Kanoon Iran Novin
Director of photography: Koohyar Kalari
Production designer:Amir Esbati
Editor: Sepideh Abdolvahab
Music: Siamak Kalantari
Sales Agent: Noori Pictures
No rating, 88 minutes.