Sahel (Behrouz Vossoughi), a poet during the reign of the Shah is married to Mina (Monica Bellucci), the daughter of a wealthy family. Mina's driver (Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan) is also in love with her and jealous of her relationship with Sahel. As the revolution approaches, her driver rises through the ranks in the revolutionary and uses his power to imprison both Sahel and Mina. Mina is released after 10 years and told that Sahel is dead and sets off to start a new life with the driver but 20 years later, Sahel is freed and he sets out to reunite with the woman he loves.

True story seen through knowing eyes.

IRANIAN FILM FESTIVAL AUSTRALIA: Rhino Season is an exile’s film. Written and directed by Bahman Ghobadi, who is working outside his native Iran for the first time after his 2009 underground music docudrama No One Knows About Persian Cats drew official condemnation, it’s based on the cruelly abrogated life of the late Sadegh Kamangar, an Iranian-Kurdish poet and author who was imprisoned for 30 years following the Islamic Revolution while his wife and children were told that he had died. Kamangar, a friend of Ghobadi’s, is even played by Behrouz Vossoughi, a star of 1970s Iranian cinema who also fled the country shortly before the Islamic revolution.

agitprop at its most diffused

The movie, which is dedicated to 'all political prisoners still held captive today", filters a bitter condemnation of the Iranian government and its supporters through an artfully refracted lens. This is agitprop at its most diffused, with an elliptical storytelling style flitting between the past and present as poetic elements from Kamangar’s work (excerpts from his writings are heard in voiceover) are matched visually to contemporary contemplation and memories of torture and abuse. The result is often slow, but sometimes deeply moving, as it pulls together painful strands.

Roughly cleaned and fumigated like an unwanted object, an aged Sahel (Vossoughi) is released from jail and travels to Istanbul in Turkey, where a large Kurdish community greets him and provides information on his wife, Mina (Monica Bellucci, underused), a daughter of a commander in the Shah’s service who was arrested with the young, successful Sahel (Caner Cindoruk) at the behest of her driver, Akbar Rezai (Yilmaz Erdogan), who coveted Mina for himself and used his new found authority in the Islamic revolution to take what he wanted.

Vossoughi has a nobly implacable face, which suggests deprivation without betraying obvious emotion. Ghobadi, working in the moment, often photographs the actor’s profile through vehicular windows, contrasting the surrounding rush of speed with the solemn silence of the character. Both Mina and Akbar separately live in Istanbul, but Sahel does not rush to confront either, instead staying perched in his car like it’s his new cell, watching over a wife who has long since stopped grieving for him. Bodies of water predominate (shades of The Turning), and Ghobadi will segue from Sahel looking across the water to his younger self having his head held under by interrogators whose actions are disdainfully matter of fact.

The director is more interested in the dance of uncertainty that unknowingly ties Mina and Sahel together than in actually resolving their long separation, but perhaps that is his way of noting that nothing can ever be the same for Sahel. Touraj Aslani’s cinematography helps to make the sometimes wafting intentions more concrete, even as the imagery embraces the fantastic. Sahel is sometimes more of a ghost than a man, and the ability to wipe away lives in that manner, to create a negation over a human being’s existence, is what Rhino Season ultimately rails against.