They are both on the run: the man with the dog he isn’t allowed to own because Islamic law deems it to be unclean, and the young woman who took part in an illicit party on the shores of the Caspian Sea. They barricade themselves into a secluded villa with curtained windows and eye each other suspiciously. Why has he shaved his head? How does she know he is being followed by the police? They are both now prisoners in a house without a view in the midst of a hostile environment...
BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL: Let’s be honest: the predicament confronting Jafar Panahi—the Iranian filmmaker, regarded as one of the greatest of his generation, who has been banned from working for 20 years by the Iranian government and confined to a form of house-arrest, following his prosecution on charges of disseminating propaganda against the regime—is at once horrific and galvanising.
To even mildly criticise [Panahi's] post-2009 work is considered by some supporters bad form, a case of disloyalty in extremis.
The former, for reasons too obvious to require elaboration. The latter, because it has made him a global celebrity, and informed his work—or at least, such work as can be completed—with an urgency that transcends mere anticipation by the arthouse set. No sooner is a film completed and smuggled out of Tehran—usually in a cake (and do the Iranian authorities not wonder about these cakes, being dispatched to distant, oddly film festival-friendly towns like Berlin and Cannes?)—than it finds its way to the world’s critics and journalists: a timely report from the frontlines of injustice. Say what you like, Aung San Suu Kyi never made it into Un Certain Regard.
But it also makes it extremely hard to assess Panahi’s post-internment films with any degree of objectivity, since who doesn’t sympathise with his plight? Who wouldn’t take his side, against that of the mullahs? Consequently, to even mildly criticise his post-2009 work is considered by some supporters bad form, a case of disloyalty in extremis. And so many critics have erred in the opposite direction, citing his previous samizdat work, 2011’s This Is Not a Film, as a triumph to equal earlier achievements like Crimson Gold and The Circle.
It was not: it was an ingenious, occasionally inspired response to an almost unimaginably difficult situation, a melancholy dispatch from a bored and desperate man—and it’s in no sense damning him with faint praise to note that it was about the best he could hope to achieve, in the circumstances, since Panahi at half his powers is still better than most people at the top of their game; unlike many artistic/political cause célèbres, he really is as good as his reputation would have it.
That (not-a-) film was set in his city apartment; this one is set in his seaside house, a three-storey pile facing a beach and decorated in questionable taste, to which a filmmaker—Panahi’s alter ego, played by fellow filmmaker Kamboziya Partovi (credited as co-director here)—has retreated. It begins promisingly, with a long, almost sequence involving the confined filmmaker drawing the curtains throughout the house, plunging the rooms into darkness, and tending to his dog . . . who, incidentally, delivers the most nuanced and compelling performance in the entire film.
There are flashes of satirical absurdity—the Islamic government, we learn, having declared dogs 'unclean’, is busy rounding them up: hence our protagonist’s desire for privacy—and a shot of the dog watching a report on television, as the bodies of other, dead canines are dumped in mass graves, is easily the most affecting in the film: not only its most direct instance of political comment, but also of empathy.
Unfortunately, things shift with the unexpected arrival of a man and woman, supposedly brother and sister, who claim to be on the run from the authorities and require a place to stay. (A subsequent sequence, with an unseen policeman on the other side of the front door, demanding to be let in, displays Panahi’s talent for achieving tension through the simplest of means.) Almost as soon as he has appeared, however, the man vanishes again, ostensibly to prepare the way for their escape, and the woman—possibly suicidal, or possibly one of the secret police—is left alone with the filmmaker, to exchange various platitudes about solitude and individual responsibility, and so on.
But the acting in these scenes is not good—from either party—and the woman’s symbolic function so overt, she might as well be wearing a hijab with the word METAPHOR embroidered across the front. Her arrival serves to destabilise the film, which suddenly lurches into a rather more recognisable mode: the agit-prop, absurdist political theatre of the 1970s, its tone equal parts Ionesco (the essential irrationality and unknowability of human behaviour) and Caryl Churchill (the house as a bulwark against the insanity of the outside world).
It ambles along in this manner for a while, before finally Panahi himself appears—first wandering through the house like a ghost in his own life, then shown filming, with a small crew, a scene we have witnessed earlier. He’s an avuncular, slightly quizzical screen presence, whose first appearance occasioned a round of applause at the screening I caught, but his first-person injection into this narrative serves little purpose beyond keeping us squarely focused on the Issue At Hand. Dogs and suicidal women are all very well, but let’s not forget who this is about, people.
From this point on, the drama becomes more and more attenuated, the pace slacker, the post-modernist devices more hermetic and remote. Never exactly high on energy, the film also runs out of ideas; with 40 minutes left to go, it has little left to say. But it keeps on saying it, because it must—because Panahi must, since to stop speaking, to stop making films, is to submit to their injustice and cruel idiocy—and because we, as concerned, enlightened, impeccably rational men and women of the liberal West, must also listen. It’s a strange, necessary process: the mullahs are exacting their vengeance on all of us, it seems—making us complicit in the same, ongoing transaction. Which is fair enough. You just wish the movie was better.