After a secret is revealed, the marriage between a piano teacher (Mahnaz Afshar) and her husband comes to a crossroads after 13 years, forcing her to make a difficult decision.

Iranian debut a slight affair.

IRANIAN FILM FESTIVAL AUSTRALIA: Chosen as the opening night film for this year’s Iranian Film Festival and the winner of several awards back home, Snow on Pines (translated in some territories as The Snow on the Pines) has the kind of title that hooks a certain type of viewer (i.e. this one) with the promise of swoon-inducing visual poetry.

the lack of dramatic juice that lets it down

Appearances, however, can be deceptive. It features no snow until a couple of brief shots at the very end, none of its trees—please forgive my literal-mindedness here—are readily recognisable as pines, and despite the gorgeous colour still on the festival website, it’s shot entirely in black and white. It’s true the camerawork is confidently handled, but poetic? Hardly. When fellow Iranian Rafi Pitts titles a film It’s Winter, he means it. Snow’s debutante director, Payman Maadi, seems in contrast to like playing games with the audience.

Maadi is best known as the lead actor in Asghar Farhadi’s Academy Award-winning 2011 drama, A Separation. It would be unfair to expect a film directed by a first-timer to match Farhadi’s prize-hoovering sensation, which hit viewers around the world as the work of a strikingly powerful dramatist with a noticeably different approach to those of older Iranian stylists including Abba Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi and the various members of the Makhmalbaf clan. But it’s hard not to want more meat and potatoes than we get from this understated melodrama about a married female piano teacher who discovers her husband, a dentist, has been having an affair with one of her pupils.

Judged by western standards, this is thoroughly conventional material. The adultery theme might make it seem a little racy for Iranian sensibilities (the film spent two years getting past the censors though was uncontroversial when finally released), but the film’s sympathy for its jilted heroine, Roya (Mahnaz Afshar), and disapproval of her husband’s adultery are both made obvious, while a plot strand in which Roya befriends and eventually goes on a date with a neighbour is handled with kid gloves.

Maadi’s main strengths as a director are that he knows where to place the camera to best advantage and how to get the best from his cast. Afshar’s lead performance is by far the finest thing about the film. Possessed of one of those striking faces that command attention without her having to do much, Afshar is aided by extraordinary eyes that need only lift a centimetre or flicker sideways for a moment to express a well of emotion and meaning. (It’s easy to see why Kiarostami used her in Shirin, his experimental study of a female cinema audience.) What lets the film down is its script, way too obviously a solo writing effort by a novice director.

While I realise the material has its sensitive aspects in Iran, it’s not this so much as the lack of dramatic juice that lets it down. Add this to structural issues such as the reluctance to kick off the main drama until a good 20 minutes into the story (meaning too many minutes of domestic trivia and some relationships and character information unclearly delineated) and you end up with a film on the cusp between the mildly engaging and the soporific.

While Maadi is probably trying to steer clear of the melodramatic excess implied by the material, he ends up going so far in the other direction that he makes the entire enterprise feel safe and lacking in energy – it’s all swaddled in a blanket of good taste and reserve, something you could never accuse his old director, Farhadi, of doing.