|Levon Haftvan in Parviz. Courtesy Guardian.|
For the past five years, Iranian cinema has been in a lull. Compared to the intense culture of experimentation that characterized the three decades following the 1979 revolution, the past half-decade has seen a retreat to safer and less compelling grounds. There are two main causes for this phenomenon: first, the limitations imposed on filmmaking by the government; second, the pressure of the international market. It should be no surprise if the two forces seem to push in opposite directions. Most of what happens in the so-called developing world happens at the confluence of these forces. For art to be more than entertainment, it must withstand both types of pressure.
On the one hand, censorship and barriers to production and distribution within Iran have become unbearably restrictive to many filmmakers. Some of the country’s most influential directors, such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Bahman Ghobadi, have moved abroad and now live in what is effectively artistic exile. In part due to this distance, their recent pictures have lost any sense of immediacy.
Ghobadi’s Rhino Season (2012), for example, is supposedly about the plight of Iranian Kurds, but it might as well take place on the moon – or a Hollywood set. Instead of acknowledging the exile status of its production, the film tries to re-create Iran, the way the western movie industry re-creates ancient Rome or Persia; as a result it looks flat, displaced, literally without a background. The lead role is played by Italy’s Monica Belluci, who struggles through her Farsi lines, and the storytelling puts pathos into overdrive, taking the viewer’s emotions for a ride. The two forces, oppression at home and the global market’s demands, are clearly at work here.
A less immediately obvious but more significant example comes from Iran itself: Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning A Separation (2011), which tries to walk the razor’s edge between social commentary and popular appeal. It was seen, simultaneously, as both an art film and a sound financial investment. It also managed to criticize Iranian society without attracting the wrath of the erratic, often venomous censors in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration.
A closer look shows how much Farhadi had to sacrifice for his success. To avoid the censors, it is basically unable to depict the reality of any of its subjects: it cannot show physical intimacy between a couple, or represent religion, the legal system, or the economy in any depth. But if it is possible to work around these obstacles through irony and guile, there is still Farhadi’s need to make a marketable film. He reduces a serious topic to who-done-it detective drama, withholding important information from the audience to create cheap suspense. The narrative’s central dilemma, the struggle between the rising middle class and the traditional working class, is resolved squarely in favor of the honest, hard-working middle-class family. If only those pesky poor people would let us get our divorces in peace! The film loses much of its power on a second viewing.
There are exceptions, but they are rare figures indeed. Like Makhmalbaf and Ghobadi, Abbas Kiarostami has also given up on making films in Iran, but then he no longer seeks to make films about Iran. He has turned himself into a world citizen. (Farhadi has been trying to make this shift as well.) The other great exception is Jafar Panahi, who continues to make movies under the constant threat of imprisonment and worse. Based directly on his extraordinary circumstances, This Is Not a Film (2011) is raw, bare, uncompromising. Panahi is a better filmmaker now than he ever was, but his is not a life to recommend to anyone.
Under (relatively) more ordinary circumstances, most young filmmakers in Iran try to walk the same line as Farhadi, and they fail in very similar ways. The result, for the past few years, is a cinema that is neither daring nor commercial, but one that stumbles in between, unsure of what it wants to achieve.
Parviz, directed by then-39-year-old Majid Barzegar in 2012, walks a different path. Barzegar’s second feature, it offers harsh social criticism without giving an inch to the market. And at the same time it is singularly watchable. You cannot take your eyes off it, not because it takes your emotions hostage, but because you are constantly trying to look deeper into it, to perceive what lurks behind every movement of the story.
The eponymous main character – played to daunting perfection by theatre veteran Levon Haftvan – is a 50-year-old who lives with his father in one of north Tehran’s upscale gated communities. He is overweight, unemployed, quiet, and entirely obedient to his father, a severe old man with double his son’s vigor.
Parviz spends his days doing the housework and performing odd jobs for his well-to-do neighbors. This cushy life comes to an end when the father decides to marry a younger woman and asks Parviz to move out to a derelict house on the other side of the city. The moment he leaves his father’s home, he is also rejected by the other residents of the gated community, who decide they can no longer trust him, even as an errand boy.
Parviz subsequently takes on a different role, secretly terrorizing his former community. Step by step, he gains a sense of his power to disrupt the daily lives of its inhabitants. He tests the fragility of their relationships, whose cordial veneer falls away with the first provocation. He also tests his own limits, discovering to his surprise and our horror that they are very few. Throughout, the narrative tempo remains steady, as everything slowly builds toward a final, enormous act of violence.
This is not an easy film to watch, even if little violence is ultimately manifest on screen. One is reminded of Michael Haneke’s oeuvre, which has obviously influenced the screenplay on which Barzegar collaborated with Hamed Rajabi and Bardia Yadegari. The pivotal difference is that Parviz is not as heavily stylized as the typical Haneke film. This is partly a function of the production: the film was made on a shoestring budget, with a digital camera, and the main cast and crew forwent their salaries. It benefits from its material impoverishment with an unusual immediacy.
Still more importantly, without saying a single word about politics, this is unmistakably a political film, an attack on contemporary conditions. The Iranian censors are evidently intelligent enough to have sensed its subversive potential and have so far barred it from screening publicly beyond a few smaller international festivals, where it has yet to attract much notice.
Parviz is about power. We watch the destructive power of a single agent who returns from ignominy to terrorize an entire community, gaining confidence with each act. It is not an accident that the film was written in the midst of Ahmadinejad’s tenure – the former president often utilized his own “outsider” status in the service of terrorizing the populace.
The film offers no psychological explanations. Parviz is not mad. Nor is he entirely a product of the community that, like the bourgeoisie everywhere, is perfectly capable of discarding human beings, throwing them away as it does its enormous piles of garbage. Parviz chooses one particular way to wade out of that refuse. “Civil society”, which in Western media is portrayed as the saving grace of developing nations, is here shown without its façade of civility.
Parviz represents a bold new option for Iranian cinema. To be sure, it is far from faultless: the acting, for example, is inconsistent – many of the performances seem mechanical in contrast to Haftvan’s superb portrayal. It also fails to visually represent the gated community, a serious flaw. But it deserves to be seen much more widely than it has been to date. Films such as Parviz are neither ingratiating to Western audiences nor do they criticize the state along customary lines. The new energy needed to revitalize Iranian cinema – or cinema anywhere – can come only from such directions.
|Levon Haftvan in Parviz. Courtesy Guardian.|
Parviz will be screened at UCLA’s Iranian film festival 10 May and in Madrid 17-31 May.
Via Tehran Bureau, Guardian