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More Iranian film reviews from Budapest

Two War Films, "Cold Tears", 2004, and "Night Bus", 2007.

The war between Sadam Hussein's Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran lasted nearly a decade, from 1980 to 1988, and was treated as a kind of side-show in the western press, but it was the main event in that part of the world and has provided fodder for countless Iranian films ever since. Two of these were presented in the current survey. Dated 2004 and 2007 these films show that nearly 20 years down the line this war is still far from a forgotten issue, especially as Mr. Bush's war in Iraq is still going on right at Iran's front door. "Cold Tears" (Ashke-Sarma) is a love story between an Iranian soldier and a beautiful Kurdish sheperdess set in 1983 against the background of a Persian military outpost in hostile Kurdish territory near the border with Iraq. The Kurds want independence from both Iran and Iraq and harass the Iranians by planting deadly land mines all around their encampment. The ravishing sheperdess, Ronak, tends her goats near the perimeter of the camp and serves as a decoy to cover the activities of the Kurdish militants.

A handsome young Iranian soldier, private Hayani, an expert in mine detection, arrives on the scene, but aside from his critical skills he is too friendly with the local Kurds refusing to treat all Kurdish civilians as potential enemies in defiance of the established Iranian military code. Before long he has gotten emotionally involved with Ronak the sheperdess and she with him, although she is under orders to assassinate him. The climax of the film is reached when the amorous enemies are trapped in a cave for several days during a blinding snow storm, leaning on each other for survival while her growing feelings for the kindly soldier keep her from carrying out her mission. When the storm lifts there is a big shootout after which soldier and sheperdess go their separate ways. In the spring, however, we are back to square one -- she tending her flock in sight of the camp, he on a mine detecting patrol. They spot each other and throwing all caution to the winds rush toward each other ecstatically, and -- of course -- both step on mines and get blown sky high. This is a tense totally engrossing romantic tragedy brilliantly photographed and expressing more than a little sympathy for the plight of the stateless Kurdish populace straddling three borders in the region. Written and directed flawlessly by Azizollah Hamidnejad with a highly appealing hero and heroine, this was one of the more satisfying films of the week. The strikingly beautiful actress Golshifteh Farahani, who plays the sheperdess, Ronak, has been discovered by Hollywood and can currently be seen in a new Ridley Scott film, "Body of Lies”, opposite Leonardo Dicaprio!

The second war film "Night Bus" is quite recent, 2007, and centers on a young Iranian soldier, just eighteen, assigned to guard and deliver 38 Arab prisoners of war to a POW camp, all packed into a run-down civilian bus driven through a heavily bombarded no-mans-land at night. Most of the Arab soldiers who were nothing but cannon fodder in the Iraqi army are glad to fall into the relative safety of Persian prisonership except for one hardened Iraqi officer who stages a short lived unwanted escape. The young guard, all macho on the outside but a softie inside, treats his prisoners with as much kindness as possible under the conditions, in what is both a humanistic anti-war film and a politically correct condemnation of the tyranical Sadam regime without every mentioning the dictator by name or naming Iraq as the enemy country. Rather sloppily filmed in black and white with a tacked together script this is definitely no masterpiece of the genre, but nevertheless an interesting peek into war as non-heroism through Iranian eyes, and a good example of a Persian potboiler.

Two comedies and a surreal Wedding-Wake --

"Mama's Guests" (Mehmana Maman), 2004 is based on a popular novel and reliably helmed by veteran director Darius Mehrjui who studied film at UCLA in the early sixties and has been a dependable director of intellectual films since 1965, although his films are little known outside of iran. Mama’s Guests” is basically a semi-serious sit-com centering on an impoverished middle aged lady (Golab Adineh) who has important guests coming to dinner and is in dread of losing face because she has almost nothing to offer them. All the other characters who live around the poverty row courtyard where this takes place pitch in with one surprise contribution after another, finally resulting in a sumptuous feast for all. Along the way we get a surgical operation on a goldfish attacked by a cat and a rousing scene in which Mama’s husband, a movie projectionist who hasn’t gotten paid for months, gets together with his film buddies to mouth the music and dialog from film classics such as "Lawrence of Arabia” and "Duel in the sun” which is, one might suspect, Mehrjui’s private homage to his UCLA education. Golab Adineh as the harried Mama obviously knows her way around such roles but this is really more TV than movie fare.

"Marriage Iranian Style" (Ezdevaj be sabke irani) 2006, director Hassan Fathi, 110 min., starring Shila Khodadad as Shirin, the beautiful bride, Dariush Arjmand as her implacably religious father, Haj Ebrahim the rich rug merchant with prayer beads in hand at all times, and Daniel Holmes as David-Daoud, the American suitor willing to convert to Islam, is the one out-and-out comedy of the current collection. Against his better judgement Haj Ebra is persuaded to allow his very beautiful daughter, Shirin, of marriageable age to take a job in her uncle’s travel agency. There she meets the red bearded American computer engineer David and it is love at first sight for both. However, while most everyone else can see that they are a perfect match, father Ebra who has hated American since the days of Jimi Carter and the American Embassy takeover, will be hard to win over -- especially when another rug merchant who would like to see his own son marry Shirin, produces a mockup photo showing David together with George Bush and Nicole Kidman! This almost stops the wedding but when counter evidence is produced Haj at last relents and the lavish wedding takes place, an excellently mounted set piece in itself.
Hilarious most of the way with even more hilariously bad English sub-titles (*praty girl...etc,) so bad they were unintelligible in parts, but the comedy soared above them anyway. Besides being a good healthy rib-tickler just because of the subject matter „MIS” provides lots of little insights into current Iranian culture in passing and was a welcome break from the unrelenting heaviness of the films that had preceded.

Another wedding turns into a wake and a resurrection ...
MOSAFERAN (The Travelers), made in 1992 by Bahram Beizai, (also written by him) is the oldest film in this survey but, with its glowing photography and outrageous ideas, looks like the newest, and packs enough story for three films into its relatively short 90 minute running time. The attractive modern looking mother of a family of four talking straight into the camera tells us right at the outset that she, her husband, and her two kids are leaving to attend her sisters wedding in Teheran, but they'll never get there because they are all going to get killed in an accident along the way. Nothing like knowing what’s going to happen, but what actually does happen with the family gathering for the wedding in a big house in Teheran is completely weird, unexpected and -- if I may say so, "Bunuelesque", for the movie this has most in common with is Bunuel’s "Exterminating Angel”.
It takes a while for the news of the accident to arrive, and a while longer for it to sink in, but when it does the wedding turns into a wake –except for the old mother who is in deep denial and firmly convinced that the reported dead are not really dead, even when the police officer who was at the scene appears to pay his condolences, and the handcuffed truck drivers who caused the accident are brought in to apologize for the tragedy – and the end, when the dead come marching in in a blaze of other worldly light, is a case where seeing is not quite believing. Brilliantly executed if hard to swallow, this film is definitely not for every taste, but exceptional to say the least.

A woman tries to buck the system and fails, but brilliantly so.
"Cafe Transit", (the same title in Farsi as well), 2005, written and directed by Kambuzia Partovi, stars Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy as Reyhan, an independent minded young widow and mother of two, who defies local custom by reopening her late husband’s highway cafe on the Turkish-Iranian border and refusing to marry her deceased husband’s brother. In brother-in-law Nasser’s view a woman should not be an entrepreneur but Reyhan’s culinary skills turn her transit cafe into a thriving business and one of the international truckers, Zakarios, a tall handsome Greek whose wife has deserted him, falls in love with Reyhan. The love is all eye contact and comments on the food, but with growing hope that Zakarios will spirit her away from this life of female oppression. But the system is bigger than the both of them. Nasser has the cafe closed down on a legal technicality and Zakarios is brutally attacked and beaten. In this multi language atmosphere where Farsi, Turkish, Greek, and even Russian are slung about, Zakarios learns to say the all important three little words „I love you” to Reyhan, but it’s no soap. She is resigned to her fate within her family circle and is packed off by Nasser. Sounds pretty depressing, but everything here is so well done, and Reyhan is such a rich character as portrayed by actress Fereshte, that this is the one film of the bunch I wouldn’t mind seeing again. Well, yes – and "Cold Tears” also, if only for la belle Farahani.

A naive acolyte from the country comes up to the capital to get vested and instead gets robbed.
The week closed with a second film by director Seyyed Mir-Karimi, whose brilliant „So Far, So Near” had opened the week. "Under the Light of the Moon” made four years earlier (2OO1) is not nearly as ambitious or nearly as accomplished. This is a simple tale of a naive young guy from the provinces who is studying for the Islamic clergy at a theological seminary in Teheran, mainly to please his father, but himself beset by doubts as to whether this is really the life for him. His encounter with a young street urchin, "Chick”, a kid who is a thief as well as a drug dealer, leads him into another world – a world of desperate homeless people living under a bridge, and finally to the revelation that his real calling is to help people and that the best way to do this is by donning the vestments of the religion. The only out-and-out religious movie in the cycle and the one I found most predictable and innocuous.

If these ten films provide an accurate sampling the feeling one gets is that today’s Iranian films, at least the alternative art films, are for the most part puritanical, preachy, moralistic, suffocating, heavy and depressing, but laced with a certain grasping at straws of hope, and generally well-made with memorable characters and a seemingly bottomless reservoir of acting talent. In none of the leading roles (all very well done), were any repeat performers to be seen. Insofar as almost any film about everyday life is a window on the culture of the country the film comes from, and since all of these films deal with various aspects of everyday life in Iran, a batch of films like this is most revealing if not necessarily very uplifting. I just hope that the next batch of Iranian films I see are a little less pessimistic.

by Alex Deleon

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