CIFF notes: a good year for Iranian films, if not Iranian filmmakers | Bleader

CIFF notes: a good year for Iranian films, if not Iranian filmmakers


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Leila Hatami, a VW bug, and director Adel Yaraghi in Meeting Leila
  • Leila Hatami, a VW bug, and director Adel Yaraghi in Meeting Leila
For Chicagoans anyway, this has been an exceptional year for Iranian movies, given the extended run of Asghar Faradi's A Separation (the first Iranian film to win an Academy Award), the local premieres of Jafar Panahi's heroic This Is Not a Film (which screens again at Doc Films on the 27th) and Rafi Pitts's The Hunter, and the above-average selections (The Last Step and the personal essay My Home, which plays later this month) in the Film Center's annual Iranian series. In this climate, it's easy to overlook the two Iranian films playing this week at the International Film Festival, Adel Yaraghi's Meeting Leila (which screens tonight and tomorrow at 8:30 PM and on Saturday at noon) and Bahman Ghobadi's Rhino Season (which screens tomorrow at 3:30 PM, Saturday at 2:15 PM, and Sunday at 7:45 PM), though I'd say both films are worth your time.

Technically speaking, Rhino Season isn't Iranian. Ghobadi made the film in Turkey, where he's lived since government officials pressured him to leave Iran in 2009 (the same year he made the invigorating No One Knows About Persian Cats, about underground rock bands in Tehran). But it's expressly concerned with the fate of artists under the Islamic Republic; and since it was made outside Iran, Ghobadi is able to present this subject in more explicit detail than he could at home. Behrouz Vossoughi, a legendary Iranian actor who's lived in Los Angeles since around the time of the Revolution, plays a poet who's imprisoned for nearly 30 years under the regime for false charges of writing antigovernment poetry. Not only do authorities torture him in prison; they convince his wife and daughter that he's dead. The film centers on his struggle to reconnect with his family in Istanbul after being released.

Monica Bellucci in Rhino Season
  • Monica Bellucci in Rhino Season
If I'm ambivalent about Rhino Season, it's because it feels deprived of the liveliness of such earlier Ghobadi films as A Time for Drunken Horses, Marooned in Iraq, and Turtles Can Fly. Those also dealt with oppressed people—Iranian Kurds living in desperate poverty or war-torn conditions—yet Ghobadi emphasized their desire to live in spite of their circumstances. The movies are often surprisingly funny, and their nonprofessional casts can be as endearing as Vittorio De Sica's. In spite of the soulful performances by Vossoughi and Monica Bellucci (who plays his wife), I didn't experience the same affection for the characters in Rhino Season. Ghobadi has imagined them in epic terms: at times, it feels like they stand for all the persecuted intellectuals under the Islamic Republic. And the careful, symbolic imagery, which seems designed as a visual corollary to the poet's metaphoric verse, feels similarly portentous. Still, there's no denying Ghobadi's passion, anger, or craftsmanship.

Lighter in tone and much looser in its imagery, Meeting Leila first seems like a lark compared to the other Iranian releases of the year. A chain-smoking ad man (played by cowriter-director-producer-editor Yaraghi) receives an ultimatum from his fiancee: either the cigarettes go or I do. Considering the fiancee is played by Leila Hatami, one of the most beautiful and talented actresses in the world, his choice should be a no-brainer. But bad habits die hard, and Yaraghi finds plenty of familiar humor in the quitting process. In one scene I'm especially fond of, Hatami goes through her man's apartment and uncovers cigarettes in about a couple dozen places. Yaraghi films the scene in one take, though it doesn't last long: Hatami knows where he's hidden every smoke, and she disposes of them all quickly and gracefully.

Likewise, I detect a hidden agenda beneath Leila's unassuming surface. It's possible that the movie is an allegory about chauvinism in Iran—a long-standing habit that everyone knows is unhealthy—with the outspoken, independent-minded Hatami representing the gorgeous modern woman with whom the nation could live happily if only it heeded her sane advice.

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