The Magic of Iranian Cinema

Though the Iranian Cinema shares many characteristics with the European Art house films, yet it has a distinct character stemming from its roots firmly planted in its national heritage, social conditions, religious dogmas and political upheavals.

By Rasheed Noorani

“A Hero” , Asghar Farhadi’s provocative take on the theme of identity

Last week I watched Panah Panahi’s road movie, “Hit the Road” a poignant tale of a tender family travelling across a rough landscape; though the movie has been highly acclaimed internationally but it is yet to receive permission to be screened locally almost a year after its resounding success in Berlin Film festival. The original Persian title of the movie is “Jadeh Khaki” which could be loosely translated into dirt road. It is a painful odyssey made tolerable by the interspersed bouts of sardonic humor; though it is still a fresh take on existential questions in our lives.

Panah Panahi’s “Hit the Road” (2021); a moving family drama

A couple of months ago I saw Asghar Farhadi’s “A Hero”; kind of a social thriller exploring themes of identity in modern Iran. While engaging, it is also a prime example of provocative art. The film won the Grand Prix in 2021 Cannes film Festival. Farhadi is a known auteur to the world of cinema since his 2011 Oscar winning film “A Separation”; and even before that with his universally acclaimed drama “About Elly”, which portrays the mysterious disappearance of a kindergarten teacher during a picnic with friends and acquaintances in northern areas of Iran. Again, questions about conceived identity and values takes center stage.

My first exposure to Iranian cinema, started at a very early age. I was hardly fifteen when I watched “Journey of Stone/Safar Sang” by Masoud Kimiai on big screen in a movie theater in Tehran. It was the summer of 1978, just a few months before the advent of the Iranian revolution, and the story based on the buoyant resistance of the villagers against the landlord, who was the owner of the only windmill in the village and had prevented them from making another mill; was an apt commentary on exploitation of economic resources by those in power. Safar Sang denounces the manipulation of the weak by the powerful and calls for institution of a more just social order. Interestingly, it takes an outsider to reignite the fighting spirit in the villagers and drive home the virtue of collective struggle. Journey of Stone is not particularly high on the list of my favorite Iranian films collectively referred to as Iranian new wave cinema, but I was definitely awestruck with the next Iranian film I saw that summer; a little known stunning and simple movie called “Cow”. Something you could definitely rank along Fellini or Godard’s most sublime work. Dariush Mehrjui’s 1969 masterpiece, is about a cow and its loving owner.

The film unfolds the story of Masht Hasan, a peasant who owns the only cow in his village. He goes on a short trip and while he is away, the cow dies in mysterious fashion and the villagers, aware of his extreme love for the cow, just bury him secretly and when he comes they tell him it has strayed away. Hasan who has no children; having lost his closest companion falls into mental derision and thinks he is no more himself but he is the cow. What follows is a harrowing vision of human condition and depth of our connection to the nature and its codes and signals.

The bounding of Hasan with his beloved Cow

Incidentally a year earlier, in the summer of 1977, I had the good fortune of being introduced to the works of three of the greatest and the most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema. It all started on a weekend, watching an early Ingmar Bergman masterpiece, a meditative foray into human psyche and soul “The Seventh Seal”. The atrocities of man and nature; and the silence of God were themes that captivated my youthful thoughts. The final scene of the movie, depicting dance macabre (dance of death), had a terrifying effect and evolved my later ruminations into fragility of life and how vain the glories of the earthly life could be. For the next couple of weeks, my fascination with Bergman, led me to watch “Wild Strawberries”, “Persona”, “Cries and Whispers”; and the existential questions of life, death, faith and loneliness became cerebral topics in my life. Next was discovering Federico Fellini through “La Strada” and “Nights of Cabiria”, I continued my journey with complex films of Fellini including “8 ½”, “La Dolce Vita” and “Amarcord, all filled with psychological symbolisms and delved into identifying the reality of perception and understanding that no reality was indeed external to my Self. Discovering immorality as an instrument of identity in a clownish society bound by traditions and customs was a complete novel idea to me. In the last week of that enrichening summer, I bumped into Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon”; the Rashomon-effect, not only validated my earlier thoughts about how fickle the reality of perception is, but also opened a vista towards identifying the reality of self, which is tantamount to identifying another fictitious persona. The Brechtian “Ikiru” and the first proper Samurai tale “Seven Samurai” were perhaps mesmerizing catalogues of capturing emotions and movement. They also reinforced, the notion that there was no absolute truth.

The Dance of Death; the last scene of Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal

Now you might be wondering why in the midst of talking about Iranian cinema, I sidetracked to describe my familiarity with these three masters of cinema. Simply because it preceded my introduction to Iranian new wave and thus had helped form, an unconscious understanding of the issue of man with identity, his natural surroundings and perception of reality or even the reality of perception.

Discovering the traits of the most visual body of work in the world cinema, was a true revelation. A good example is the founding film of the new wave “Cow”, which was smuggled out of Iran in a hurry to be shown in Venice Film Festival in 1971, and was screened, with no subtitles. But it was so visually compelling that it nevertheless won the FIPRESCI Prize. Some of the common traits of the Iranian New Wave Cinema that has always fascinated me, are passingly mentioned here

– the barren landscapes depicting the barrenness inside man and as a result becoming a character of the story itself;

– layers of meaning in the simplest stories;

– visually arresting use of small props, windows and doors as symbolic clues to follow the world of the characters;

– veiled criticism of social and religious rituals;

– the tight frames and slow pacing;

– use of allegorical devices and lyricism

– painstakingly precise blocking

– A distinctive cinematic language (not found in other national cinemas)

– Blurring the confines of fiction and reality

The list is not definitive, and many other traits could have been added, but for the sake of brevity, I have avoided delving into this further. Though the Iranian Cinema shares many characteristics with the European Art house films, yet it has a distinct character stemming from its roots firmly planted in its national heritage, social conditions, religious dogmas and political upheavals. They don’t look to others for validation and celebrate their own frailties and those of human nature in general with aplomb.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Coverpage’s editorial stance

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