Having caused something of a stir with his roughshod, guerilla-style 2009 docudrama about the Iranian underground music scene “No One Knows About Persian Cats,” director Bahman Ghobadi appears to have done a stylistic one-eighty with his new movie “Rhino Season.” Inspired by the story of a Kurdish poet friend of the director’s, who was believed dead by his family while in fact he was incarcerated in an Iranian prison, the film attempts to marry a degree of political commentary and social realism with self-consciously poetic and manipulated imagery. But a smooth filmic blend of these different textures is probably one of the hardest things to achieve and we’re sorry to say that, for us, the experiment just didn’t work here; in fact, the warring impulses rather undercut each other, leaving us none the wiser as to the real political and social stakes and vaguely irritated by the intrusive aesthetic.
And also, more than a little confused. It’s embarrassing to admit, but one of our chief problems (familiar to anyone who has ever watched a film with my mother) was simply a case of mistaken identity for the first half hour of the film. Because while Monica Bellucci and Yilmaz Erdogan (“Once Upon A Time in Anatolia”) play their characters during both the pre-and post-revolutionary periods, the poet Sahel is played by a younger actor in the flashbacks to the 1970s, where we begin, but by another (Behrouz Vossoughi), for the majority of the film. The actors don’t greatly resemble one another (in fact we mistook Vossoughi for the elder version of Erdogan's character) and, coupled with a general impressionistic editing style, several cuts around in time and frequent lapses into a dreamy subjectivity, we confess to having spent a large part of the first act waiting for the story of the poet to start, unaware that we were, in fact, watching it. You can chalk that one up to our stupidity, but it wasn't the only instance of simple confusion, and more fundamental were the issues that came later: the dips into melodrama, the unknowability of the Bellucci character as anything except She Who Suffers and a tone so willfully enigmatic that it becomes easier simply not to care by the end.
For all the political trappings, the film really just starts as a simple love triangle. Sahel the poet is in love with and marries Mina, the beautiful daughter of a Colonel in the Shah’s army, who is also loved (though obsessively and unrequitedly) by her chauffeur, because, well no discernible reason really except she looks like Monica Bellucci. When the Shah falls and the Ayatollah comes to power the hierarchy is upended and the chauffeur becomes an official of some influence, which he uses to keep Sahel incarcerated but to release Mina, though not before he rapes her. Decades later Sahel is released and tracks Mina to Istanbul where she now lives with the ex-chauffeur and their two children. Sahel gets entangled in the life of a young local prostitute while keeping watch over Mina’s house (Gatsby-style), a rain of CG turtles happens during a symbolic reverie and in general, people do things we don’t understand for reasons we cannot fathom.
Ultimately, this is a movie in which a lot of people look through a lot of windows. Frequent, high-contrast close ups demand that we map emotions onto the often impassive faces of the principals, while snatches of poetry are layered over the top, but we just don’t know these people well enough to be able to read anything into their silent pain. The dialogue is minimal and usually serves to introduce one of the film’s more heavy-handed, broad moments (the theatrically staged rape, a quasi-incestuous liaison, a plea by a windy graveside). Narrative-wise, one can never shake the feeling that a whole lot of the post-incarceration tragedy could be addressed to a point of some catharsis if our characters were just to have a conversation.
The film is by no means unwatchable, and the blown-out, self-consciously colour-graded visual style is distinctive, if not wholly our bag. And we know that there will no doubt be some who will take something from the experience that it did not yield to us. But there is an essential paradox at the heart of this kind of poetic realism, which is not addressed here: without a strong political throughline the "real" historical context feels like borrowed interest. And conversely, with little contextualization and a convoluted, highly strung story, the more poetical elements feel like they become no more than a refuge where the film can hide from its narrative failings.
Much as we’re fascinated by the emergence of Iranian national cinema and Iranian directors of note, and as deeply as we sympathize with Ghobadi’s plight (he was essentially banished from Iran following the release of the illegally-filmed ‘Persian Cats’), we simply couldn’t get invested in this film, despite our very best efforts. [C]