If last year’s fantastic “A Separation” put Leila Hatami on everyone’s World Cinema Movie Star radar (you’ve got one of those, right?), then “The Last Step” ("Pele Akher"), which premiered at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and is directed by her husband, Ali Mosaffa, may be the film that consolidates her position. But while it has already deservedly scooped her the Best Actress award in Karlovy Vary, we shouldn’t let her shimmering but grounded portrayal outshine the film itself. Also the recipient of the International Critics' Prize, the movie engrosses from beginning to end as an inventive, playful, semi-tragic drama of marriage, jealousy, love, death and filmmaking in modern-day Tehran. Perhaps it twists and turns once or twice too often, but even if it does it's crucial to note that its failures are never of ambition or intention. As such it is exciting to see a filmmaker strain at the bounds of his talents and chafe against the restrictions of conventional narrative cinema, especially with what is only his second directorial work.
From the outset, the film is meta to the point of absurd. Mosaffa, an actor-turned-writer/director and Hatami’s real-life husband, also stars in the film as her husband, Koshrow, while she herself plays Leili, an Iranian movie star of no little renown and acclaim. Mosaffa’s character is an architect/engineer, a creative endeavor that parallels that of a filmmaker in many ways, not least in the niggling attention to detail. Here, the titular "last step" refers to the one imperfection in Mosaffa’s greatest building achievement — the house he lives in with his wife sports an outdoor staircase in which the last step is a different height from the others. It is a source of tragicomic angst to Mosaffa, and compounds a certain existential ennui that is setting in, something only increased by the diagnosis of an illness, and his perception of the growing chasm between his slower, less showy labors, and his beautiful wife’s meteoric career. We know all of this because of Koshrow’s lugubrious voiceover that frequently comes to us, “Sunset Boulevard”-style from beyond the grave. Because yes, early on, he dies, and from that point on the film skips around in time, pivoting around the point of his death, gradually revealing more to the audience of his final hours, and thus gradually making more sense of the glimpses we catch of the aftermath, sometimes days, sometimes weeks, later.
It really is hard to overstate the impish delight director/star Mosaffa seems to take in playing around with flashbacks and flashforwards as a means to pointing out the absurdities and pomposities of his onscreen alter ego. Koshrow emerges as well-intentioned but directionless, with too much leisure time on his hands in which to overanalyze his life, and too little inclination to really attempt to communicate directly with those around him. Feeling like he's past his prime and suspecting his wife of harbouring secret feelings for another, he simultaneously suffers a crisis of confidence while also taking himself way too seriously, and even death doesn’t let him off the hook. It should be said that because his is the only head we ever enter in this way, it’s hard for any other character to attain quite such depth — for this reason alone, Hatami’s performance is remarkable in rounding out a character who in other hands could just just have been the sounding board for Koshrow's neuroses. Other characters do not fare quite so well, but Mosaffa's performance is engaging enough, and Koshrow’s interior life is rich enough, that we don’t particularly miss them.
To those for whom the unappealing tag “world cinema” comes with associations of Important Issues and Weighty Themes, worthily but turgidly laid out for your education rather than your enjoyment, the playfulness and didacticism-free approach of “The Last Step” may well be a breath of fresh air. While very different in story and style, it pulls off a trick similar to that of “A Separation” in that it espouses a very specific situation so completely and honestly, that it doesn’t matter that the situation may be very far removed from the experience of, say, the average Western filmgoer. The trappings of these middle-class Iranian lives may differ from those of the viewer, but the fears and joys, irritations and moments of grace happen so naturally and so believably that they transcend national, religious, ethnic and social barriers, while never compromising on the specificity of the film's setting.
“The Last Step,” with all its quirky messing-with-the-form and jumbled-up chronology is too self-conscious to be a film that everyone will enjoy, and at times it jolts the viewer out of its world trying to regain its footing after a particularly jarring ellipsis. But for those of us who dig a little cinematic iconoclasm, if it’s done with verve and intelligence, those faults can be overlooked in favor of the the prize beneath: an idiosyncratic, imaginative film tinged with ironic melancholy that is not afraid to have fun with filmic convention, or to poke fun at itself. [B+]