Although Iranian cinema has managed to survive many world-historical moments—from the overthrow of the Shah to the Islamic revolutions—which would have capsized many a weaker national film culture, it currently faces a new challenge that will truly test its mettle. All seven features in the UCLA Film and Television Archive's 16th Annual Celebration of Iranian Cinema (which begins Friday), as well as the strikingly contrasting pair of new Iranian films screening at REDCAT on Jan. 30, were made before the ultra-religious former Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005—a profound political step backward that already shows signs of ensuring a kind of cultural counterreformation by conservative Islamists, with cinema the most visible and convenient target. If Ahmadinejad has already banned Kenny G, can controversial filmmaker Jafar Panahi (The Circle, Crimson Gold) be far behind?
At the same time, this latest sampling of films comes along during another interesting cultural moment, which may actually be somewhat liberating for Iran's filmmakers. With both of the country's dominant artists of the past decade and a half, Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, spending considerable amounts of time working outside the country (for Kiarostami, projects like the Italian-language omnibus Tickets; for Makhmalbaf, the roundly dismissed Sex & Philosophy), those staying home now have a certain space to themselves while continuing to absorb the influences of the masters.
It's easy to sense this trend in actor Niki Karimi's superb debut film, One Night, which rigorously adheres to the title's dictates, and, within an exceptionally strong feminist framework, more than once recalls Kiarostami's masterpiece, Taste of Cherry. Kicked out of her apartment by her frisky mom, with whom she lives, 20-something Negar (Hanieh Tavassoli) is forced to kill time on Tehran's not-always-inviting streets. Westerners may not fully appreciate Negar's reality, which includes laws banning women from sharing rides with men to whom they're not married or related; by this standard, Negar is a wild rebel, bumming rides from perfect strangers (all men) who evince a rainbow of attitudes from Neanderthal to sophisticated.
Portrait of a Lady Far Away, by yet another actor-turned-director, Ali Mosaffa, is even more formally ambitious in its circuitous, noirlike journey through an urban netherworld situated somewhere between dream and reality. It, too, links up with Cherry, with that film's mesmerizing star Homayoun Ershadi here playing an architect torn between the needs of his constantly feuding parents and the strange woman who randomly leaves what sounds like a suicide message on his answering machine. In retrospect, it almost seems impossible how fluidly Mosaffa shifts between his protagonist's subjective states of mind, while suggesting that the architect may be but the subject of a distant lady's imaginings.
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Many of the films in the UCLA series involve odysseys into the unknown, none more visceral than the one in Reza Mirkarimi's surprisingly gripping So Close, So Far, which begins as a conventional drama concerning a doctor father's discovery of his son's fatal condition, and ends as a battle against death in almost absurd conditions. In this and Kamal Tabrizi's A Piece of Bread, certain overt religious themes work their way into each film's high relief. In Tabrizi's case, it's hard not to suspect that the director of the caustic anticlerical satire The Lizard made this follow-up as something of an appeasement to Iran's suddenly more aggressive authorities.
A more secular perspective is likely from Mohammad Rasoulof's Iron Island (unavailable for review, but set for U.S. release later this year), while Allah appears quite absent from the despairing Wake Up, Arezoo!, filmed by Kianoush Ayyari just weeks after the horrendous 2003 Bam earthquake that killed thousands. In placing a drama within the actual disaster site, the film recalls Kiarostami's own post-quake And Life Goes On, but the real progenitor of Ayyari's film is Rossellini's Paisan, with its views of World War II characters surviving amid the rubble.
Though one of the best contemporary Iranian filmmakers (in both fiction and nonfiction), Rakhshan Bani-Etemad—working with co-director Mohsen Abdolvahab—misses the full brunt of a hardy rural woman's tragedy in Gilaneh (at REDCAT). Bani-Etemad makes the film's time frame inherently political, dividing the action between the 1988 Iran-Iraq War and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. But by dwelling on a relentlessly dour domestic setting, she loses sight of the film's larger concerns about how warfare's impact extends from the trenches directly to women's lives. Far more in the spirit of REDCAT's radical programming sensibilities is the incisive and elegant companion short, Six Video Arts, by the increasingly brilliant Mania Akbari, whose debut feature, 20 Fingers, is one of the best first films anywhere in recent years. Like a devious composer, Akbari constructs six pieces, all variations on a theme of time-dissolution and the instability of the image, touched by a Warhol-like aesthetic in conversation with ancient Persian poetics.