Rakshan Bani-Etemad's commentary on life in Tehran follows the different yet connecting lives of people living at the margins. The film was first produced as a series of shorts to bypass Iranian government restrictions, using actors who were banned from performing.

2.5
An easy film to respect, but a harder one to enjoy.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: This talky Iranian film from that country’s leading female director, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, has an unlikely similarity with Pulp Fiction, in that both are woven together from urban stories with characters cropping up in more than one section. In other respects, it’s hard to imagine two more different films.

Where Quentin Tarantino's Pulp pushed boundaries of Hollywood form and acceptable taste in a quest to find new ways of entertaining an audience, Bani-Etemad has a more serious purpose in Tales: critiquing a cross-section of Iranian society via humanistic drama. If the film has a major downside, it is a common one in Iranian cinema of a certain stiff earnestness. That’s an understandable trait, perhaps, given the oppressiveness of that nation’s patriarchal theocracy, but it’s one the greatest Iranian cinema readily transcends.

The stories here include tales of heartless bureaucrats trampling on the dignity of bereft citizens, women in drug clinics, jealous husbands, a documentary filmmaker (Bani-Etemad’s own background partly lies in documentary) and an arrogant taxi driver. There is also a man too embarrassed to take off his pants to back up his official claim for medical compensation following an operation. And in the final section, a male taxi driver is coaxed into revealing he holds a flame for his female passenger - an old acquaintance who talks about his life choices with suspicion and contempt.

Generally coming out of this the worst are the men, though in most cases the film declines to stoop to one-sided condemnation and finds its men are also in some ways victims of the patriarchal attitudes to which many of them subscribe. While few of the film’s women could be described as happy, the men seem more stubborn and resentful - trapped inside the emotional cages that social convention has required them to build. That’s exemplified by the man who intercepts a letter to his wife from her former husband and immediately jumps to the wrong conclusions, cruelly berating her before breaking down and embracing her when he finally realises his error. In this respect the film, while showing feminist sympathies, presents a multi-faceted understanding of human relations.

Tales had its Australian premiere at Sydney Film Festival, where it was one of two Iranian films (but only two Asian titles) screening in the official competition. Much like the festival’s other Iranian title, Jafar Panahi’s Tehran Taxi, it sets a lot of its conversations inside moving vehicles, including taxis, but unlike that mischievously inventive film, it fails to do much of visual interest with its restricted settings.

Much the same could be said of the remainder of the film. The meat is in the performances, which are excellent across the board, and the heavily dialogue-driven script, which revives characters from some of the director’s earlier films – not that you’d need to have seen them to understand what’s going on (though that would almost certainly lead to a richer viewing experience). If this review sounds a bit reserved it’s because I found this an easy film to respect, but a harder one to enjoy – and that’s largely because of its emotional monotonality and insufficient sense of catharsis.

Read more reviews from the 2015 Sydney Film Festival

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1 hour 28 min

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