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Intruding on the History of Iranian Cinema

Intruding on the History of Iranian Cinema

I am indebted to Godfrey Cheshire for providing invaluable information contextualizing the early years of pre-revolution Iranian cinema in our correspondences.

Both “Downpour” and “Like Someone in Love” begin with moments of intrusion. In the former film, the 1972 debut feature from Bahram Beyza’i, a gang of schoolchildren keep careful eye on Mr. Hekmati and his valuable possessions as he moves into a town too small for him. Eyes are everywhere, watching his every move, waiting for him to make a mistake. In the opening shot of the latter, Abbas Kiarostami’s latest, a woman is intruded upon by an inaudible voice on a phone. She herself is offscreen as well, separated from the communities lounging around in the restaurant. Both are uncomfortable and almost suffocating in their intrusion of personal space. No matter the size of the city, privacy is a luxury no longer possible. 

Although it is simply a coincidence that the World Cinema Foundation (headed by Martin Scorsese and incoming New York Film Festival programmer Kent Jones) finished their restoration work on “Downpour” in time to be presented with this year’s festival, it makes an exciting Iranian double feature with Kiarostami’s latest effort. Both films are a time portal into the history and future of the nation’s cinema. Beyaz’i, who was taught by Kiarostami in workshops during the early 1970s, was a key precursor to the Iranian New Wave, though his work has remained more popular domestically than internationally. Meanwhile, Kiarostami has become the face of the New Wave on the festival circuit (though always behind sunglasses), an artist who incorporates Iran’s social and literary history but has moved toward an international identity.

It is thus notable to see how both film artists, four decades apart, deal with the theme of intrusion in very different settings. “Downpour” follows an upper class teacher named Mr. Hekmati (Parviz Fanizadeh, who has an unforgettable face) to teach at a school in southern district of Tehran, mostly made up of lower class individuals. From his first steps into the region, he is treated as a hostile character, not only by the children who make a mockery of his classroom, but also by a wealthy, egotistical butcher that plays him for a patsy. And when he falls in love with a beautiful young woman who has already been promised to the butcher, things become more complicated and antagonistic.  

Beyaz’i is best known as a theater legend in Iran (think Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams combined), but his filmmaking is hardly theatrical in its mesmerizingly confounding creation of an ambigous narrative space. While the sparseness of the town has a neorealist quality, the hyper-ecstatic editing and use of high-level contrasts cause the various locations of the town to collide and blend into one another, creating a world of paranoia for Mr. Hakmati. “Downpour” reflects this tonally as well, jumping from romantic melodrama to dark comedy to conspiracy thriller. Perhaps because films like “Downpour” are so rooted in their cultural identity, Beyza’i’s films have had little attention even in art houses. Hopefully those who see “Downpour” will explore the deeper pockets of Iranian cinema — the film is a stunning melodrama. There’s little you can do to hide your emotions in a town where every physical action is noted.

If the small town in “Downpour” is a place where anonymity is impossible, “Like Someone In Love” allows individuals to live anonymously, but at the price of claustrophobia. In a press conference, Kiarostami remarked that he set an early draft of the script, written twenty years ago, in Tehran. But I cannot imagine such a film taking place anywhere besides Tokyo. After a screening, a friend reminded me how Jonathan Rosenbaum said Jacques Tati’s “Playtime” taught him to live in a metropolitan area by showing him how to engage with a public space. “Like Someone In Love” taught me to avoid these spaces all together, suggesting an atmosphere of inescapable claustrophobia. It’s literally one of the most unpleasant films I’ve sat through in quite some time — I was physically shaking, ready to vomit after seeing it. That’s not to say the film is bad — it might be one of Kiarostami’s most meticulously crafted films, and its ability to create such reactions out of such ordinary situations confirms his talent.

What caused these feelings? Kiarostami’s film follows two characters, a call girl named Akiko (Rin Takanashi) and an elderly professor named Takashi (Tadashi Okuno). After a severe chiding by her boss, Akiko travels to the outskirts of Tokyo to meet Takashi, where their date doesn’t go as planned, and it’s unclear exactly what Takashi wants. The film then follows the next day as the two interact with a third character who misreads their situation, leading to a tense standoff — the conversation revolves around seemingly mundane details, but Kiarostami’s decision to let most of it play out in a single long take had my stomach twisting into multiple knots.  

While set in Tokyo, it is certainly a Kiarostami film for many reasons: the car becomes an essential location, less important for its destination than as a place of discussion and debate. There are characters pretending to be who they are not, philosophical comparisons between art and humanity, and an emphasis on the importance of perception. Yet Kiarostami uses those elements to explore the burden of metropolitan living. Conversations once considered private now happen at dinner tables and cars, sometimes through technology like phones or earbuds (including a melancholic mini-narrative where Akiko’s grandmother remains technologically close but physically distant). Only on the outskirts of Tokyo does a conversation feel free and honest. But by the end of the film even this safe space is attacked, in a shocking scene of violence unlike anything Kiarostami has produced before.

More than “The Master,” “Like Someone In Love” feels like a film I will need to see twice in order to understand the whole breadth of its sheer complexity. But it’s a film I’m glad I won’t have a chance to see again until next year, because those frames, so elegant in composition, tore me apart inside. As my thoughts wandered after the screening, I began to long for the streets of Tehran in “Downpour,” even if there, one is always being watched. According to these filmmakers, in order to live among a community, you cannot live alone.

Peter Labuza is the host of The Cinephiliacs, and a contributor to Indiewire, Press Play, The Playlist, among other publications. He is currently pursuing an MA in film history at Columbia University. You can read his blog here. This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Critics Academy at the New York Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.

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