The paradox of Iran's image in the world is that a nation notorious for bellicose international relations and theocratic oppression of its citizens should possess a film culture of renowned delicacy. Iran's portrayals in the nightly news, or even the French film Persepolis, cast the country as an almost Orwellian kingdom of faceless women in chadors and bearded men in army uniforms.
Since its resurgence in the 1990s, Iranian cinema has functioned almost like a reverse propaganda machine designed to capture the hearts and minds of the world's intelligentsia, or at least convey that Iranians share the concerns of the global village. The High Museum is among the country's artistic supporters, having presented the annual Iranian Film Today series for 11 years. Some of the films in this year's program suggest that the country's traditions constrain the Iranian people as much as they bring them together.
Unfinished Stories (***** Sat., Sept. 13) employs a structure familiar to Western indie cinema by following a set of seemingly random but interlocking episodes. Debut director Pourya Azarbayjani presents the tales of several women who spend much of the film alone on the streets of Tehran after dark – a particularly fraught place for unescorted women in a Muslim nation.
The film's three primary stories each represents a different point in the cycles of courtship and childbirth. One young woman hopes to elope with her unseen fiance, but faces insurmountable problems when he doesn't show up. An older, married woman seeks to buy a pregnancy test, the results of which could dictate her marriage's fate. A new mother at a hospital resorts to drastic measures when a financial problem arises.
Azarbayjani specializes in shots of women in isolation, wandering dark, deserted streets, with occasional detours to hospitals and police stations. Cell phones and other emblems of modern communication frequently fail to provide her protagonists with the help they need. In a Western film, the communication breakdowns would offer a metaphor for weakness of modern character, but in Unfinished Stories, they exacerbate the nation's already severe restrictions on male-female relationships. Predicaments that would be difficult enough in traditional communities prove impossible in the urban theocracy. Unfinished Stories contains a few ineffectual performances but nevertheless offers a strong, unusual exploration of the plight of Iran's women.
A Few Kilos of Dates for a Funeral (***** Fri., Sept. 12) suggests that things aren't necessarily easier for Iranian men. Director Saman Salour's deadpan black-and-white film takes place at a last-chance gas station that can be found at the intersection of Samuel Beckett's stark plays and Jim Jarmusch's stoic comedies. Salour creates a kind of Laurel and Hardy act between naive, pesky employee Yadi and his grumpy manager, Mr. Sadri, a former strongman.
Salour's film features some funny recurring jokes: Yadi's postman friend has no brakes on his bicycle, so he shouts "Stop me!" whenever he pulls up. In the most incongruous moment, the gas station receives a cardboard standee of soccer player David Beckham, despite its deserted, back-of-beyond location. A Few Kilos of Dates emerges as a study of loneliness. Yadi sends love letters to a woman he barely knows and who never replies, while Mr. Sadri finds an unusual substitute for live companionship in a snowbound automobile. Like an expert still photographer, the director shows an impressive eye for imagery, framing his lonely, bedraggled characters against wintry landscapes.
A Few Kilos of Dates for a Funeral builds to moments of poignancy and power as the characters' frustrations eventually explode. But the elliptical screenplay hinders the story when it withholds information in a contrived attempt to draw out the plot. (Also, the screener I watched suffered from subtitles translated so poorly, it was as if the characters were speaking pidgin English. The dialogue's gist was discernible, but the lack of clarity impeded its soft-spoken impact.)
Persian Carpet (***** Sat., Sept. 6) provides a kind of crash course in Iranian cinema for the uninitiated. The anthology about Persian carpets features 15 stories from some of the country's most acclaimed filmmakers in genres that range from comedy to journalism to even an animated segment inspired by the famous children's book The Little Prince.
Jafar Panahi helms the strongest title, "Untying the Knot," in which a soldier and his sister are forced to sell a family heirloom for her dowry. Panahi demonstrates why he's won the lion's share of the world's film awards: He uses a single tracking shot to tell the story in a locale that resembles a vast, institutional pawn shop. "Untying the Knot" explores the tension of family attachment vs. practical value as the brother tries to persuade an official to give him a good rate, despite the endless line of supplicants also carrying heirloom rugs.
In Mojtaba Raie's "The Command of Aqa Seyyed Reza," a young woman resists her father's attempt to sell her late mother's unfinished carpet. The dispute leads to a chase across a terraced, mountaintop village – the location like a homespun work of art in its own right. Rakhshan Banietemad's "The 3D Carpet" presents a documentary investigation into the true creator of a one-of-a-kind form of decoration – a 3-D carpet – which amounts to several interwoven rugs stretched into the shape of a mosque on a massive frame.
Many of Persian Carpet's segments avoid conventional storytelling in favor of aesthetic appreciations of carpets and their creation. The extreme close-ups have remarkable tactile qualities that make you feel like you could reach out and touch one. Unfortunately, Persian Carpet contains so many similar films, with so many tracking shots of lovely carpet patterns, that they all begin to look alike despite the carpets' intricate beauties.
Overall, however, Persian Carpet conveys Iran's pride and passion for the ancient craft, while simultaneously demonstrating why the country's film industry is gaining on its carpets as its most prized aesthetic export.