Two Iranian agents are assigned to kidnap, interrogate and ultimately kill a dissident author and make it look like a suicide.
Vacant chairs stand in jury rooms and presentation stages at film festivals around the world—all in honour of arrested Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi—but who stands for Mohammad Rasoulof? Arrested at the same time as his more famous countryman, for a charge no less spurious (filming without a permit), given a two decade ban from filmmaking and sentenced to a six-year prison term (later reduced, upon appeal, to one year), he’s in danger of becoming the Maria Alyokhina to Panahi’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, overshadowed by a more prominent martyr to the same cause.
a film made amid unusually difficult conditions
It’s especially unfair, since he’s no less talented a filmmaker. I screened his 2005 allegory Iron Island at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and found him to be a thoughtful and engaging man. His 2011 samizdat film Goodbye, about a young lawyer struggling to leave Iran, won him the Best Director prize in Un Certain Regard at that year’s Cannes—but it’s his 2009 drama The White Meadow (which Panahi edited) that lingers most in my head. Its visuals influenced by the video installations of his countrywoman Shirin Neshat, it’s a work of such painterly magnificence as to rival Kiarostami—and like that director's masterpiece The Wind Will Carry Us, it devises an entire mythology, inverting the natural order of things (things are revealed, rather than concealed underground) to comment, obliquely, on the Persian landscape and the obscure customs and beliefs of its inhabitants. Try as I might, I can’t shake its Snow White-like central image, of a beautiful dead woman—her corpse preserved among glittering stalactites in a salt cave—who, according to a villager, had 'moved too provocatively among us’ to be allowed to live.
This one, though, is very different: a film made amid unusually difficult conditions. In it, we follow two men, Morteza and Khosrow, as they drive into the mountains in Iran’s north. It’s winter; they appear to be on a mission, and only gradually is it revealed to us that they are, in fact, agents of the state: mid-level thugs for the country’s security apparatus. Like Dancer and Julian from Don Seigel’s classic The Lineup, they seem a mismatched pair: Morteza is coldly pragmatic, utterly convinced of the rightness of their cause, which he considers justified under Sharia law; Khosrow, by comparison, seems almost neurotic—and is given to frequently telephoning his wife, back in Tehran, for updates on the condition of their son, hospitalised with some malady.
Gradually the reason for their trip becomes clear: they’ve been dispatched to kidnap and interrogate (and, inevitably, execute) Kesra, a novelist, who has reportedly written a manuscript about a government plan to eliminate a bunch of dissidents, writers and intellectuals like himself, in an 'accidental’ coach crash en route to a supposed conference in Armenia—a conceit which turns out to have been an actual plan, abandoned at the last moment. They find him without much fuss, and the grim process begins. But soon the film opens out, to consider some of the members of Kesra’s circle, all of whom possess the same information as he, and all of whom are, consequently, living under the threat of similar reprisals.
And then there’s the question of the man already bound and gagged in the boot of the killers’ car...
These details are parcelled out carefully, slowly, and information for the film, when it premiered at Cannes last May, was almost hard to as come by offscreen as it was on. It was apparently shot in secret, and appeared as a last-minute inclusion in the festival’s lineup. Almost all concerned in its making—mostly expatriate Iranians living in Europe, where Rasoulof currently spends much of his time—had their names redacted from its credits, and appeared nowhere in the film’s scant publicity materials.
However, Middle East watchers claim that the narrative departs from an actual historical incident, the so-called 'Chain Murders’, conducted between 1988 and 1998, of more than eighty Iranian writers and activists, all critics of the Khamenei regime. (The bus incident referenced in the film actually occurred, near the Heyran Pass in the summer of 1995, and was foiled only by the timely intervention of one alert passenger.) As recently as 2000, Saeed Hajjarian, a newspaper editor who claimed to have information regarding the perpetrators of the plot, was shot in the face outside Tehran’s city council building, and left paralysed; he has never recovered.
As such, this marks both a provocative act of real-world political protest, and an audacious foray into genre filmmaking for the director—one which, at times, feels like an attempt to impose the conspiratorial, procedural mindset of mid-period Costa-Gavras upon a distinctly Islamic setting. Talky and largely static, confined mostly to claustrophobic interiors (shot in Hamburg) and filmed almost entirely in tight close-ups, the result is occasionally awkward, and, at 134 minutes, perhaps overly protracted—though, given that it’s a work about censorship, one feels slightly uneasy suggesting that it might benefit from being cut.
But the violence is unusually well-staged, and chillingly understated: one sequence, in particular—of a wheelchair-bound author succumbing to poison while, in the foreground, his killer idly picks at leftovers in his refrigerator—perfectly communicates the routine, almost dispassionate nature of cruelty in a dictatorship.
Still, it’s to Rasoulof’s credit that he allows shading in his depiction of this hell. Some of the intellectuals are presented as pompous, vainglorious, egotistical; and Khosrow’s frequent, self-justifying appeals to religious piety—'Everything I’ve done," he wails, 'I’ve done for God"—attests to the impossibility in reconciling the conflicting demands of fundamentalism with a secular state. (It’s worth noting, too, the advanced age of each of the dissidents shown here; from the dismissive tone of the intellectuals’ discussions, you sense that the filmmaker might be none too impressed with the lack of direct political commitment among younger Iranians.) The film’s title comes from Bulgakov, a line from his great anti-Soviet satire The Master and Margarita. It’s high praise—but deserved—to note that Rasoulof belongs to the same broken but unbowed tradition. It’s a courageous film, and he’s a brave, admirable man.