Part two of my preview of the 48th Chicago International Film Festival is, for reasons entirely coincidental, focused exclusively on movies made by filmmakers from the Middle East. I was fortunate to recently catch previews of three very strong entries in the CIFF lineup: the feature debut of a promising Iranian director and Kiarostami protege (Adel Yaraghi’s Meeting Leila), the Turkish-set film of an acclaimed Iranian/Kurdish director-in-exile (Bahman Ghobadi’s Rhino Season), and a highly poetic, “fair use” VHS mash-up/tribute to a legendary Egyptian actress made by a Lebanese director (Rania Stephan’s The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni). All are good examples of CIFF’s admirable commitment to promoting the work of Middle Eastern filmmakers. Even more examples can be found in the festival’s “Spotlight Middle East” sidebar.
Again, any of my students who attend any CIFF screenings (and staple their ticket stubs to a one to two page screening report) will receive extra credit. Refer to the extra credit page of your course website for more information.
For the complete line-up, as well as ticket info, showtimes and directions to festival venues, visit: www.chicagofilmfestival.com
Meeting Leila (Adel Yaraghi, Iran)
This supremely confident feature debut by Adel Yaraghi, based on a script he co-wrote with his mentor Abbas Kiarostami, features an irresistible comic premise: Nader (Yaraghi) is an “ideas man” for an advertising agency who considers smoking cigarettes integral to his creative process. His sensitive fiance, Leila (the great Leila Hatami, best known to American audiences for her performance as Simin in A Separation), works as a perfume tester and has demanded that he quit smoking before their wedding day. The problems that ensue are emblematic of the universal obstacles and compromises that all couples in serious relationships must face. What finally makes this film so satisfying though, in addition to the winning performances of the leads, is Yaraghi’s uncommon command of form; humor slyly arises from compositions and editing – Yaraghi cuts from a shot of Nader reading a poem directly into the camera to the most priceless “reaction shot” I’ve seen in years (which I won’t give away here), as well as deftly worked out gags involving careful considerations of space (two men in a hospital sharing a cigarette underneath the locked door between them) and time (an impressive long take that nearly literalizes the phrase “bull in a china shop”). I also greatly appreciated what Yaraghi does with primary colors, the weather, and Duke Ellington and John Coltrane’s rendition of “In a Sentimental Mood.” This is a director to watch.
The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (Rania Stephan, Lebanon/Egypt)
I saw a DVD screener of this terrific experimental documentary by chance only after the cancellation of a press screening of Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love and in many ways it was the most pleasant surprise of all the CIFF films I previewed. In spite of the fact that I was completely unfamiliar with the subject, one of Egypt’s most famous and beloved movie actresses, I was held in thrall for all 70 minutes of this extended highlight reel. Director Rania Stephan shows that Soad Hosni was a great actress, a rare beauty and a symbol for the newly liberated Egpytian woman following the 1952 revolution in a tribute that unfolds entirely as a series of VHS-sourced clips from Hosni’s films (with no voice-over narration, interviews or explanatory intertitles added). Beginning with a fast-paced montage of Hosni running accompanied by the audio of male co-stars reciting her characters’ names and continuing through many more thematically linked episodes (marriage, crying, physical abuse), the clips have been mix-mastered, Godard-like, into an almost astonishingly coherent metaphor for Hosni’s life (and a comment on the nature of female representation in the cinema besides). Even the poor VHS quality, with its splotchy colors, “tracking problems” and overall degraded image, serves as a poignant reminder of the ephemeral nature of film.
Rhino Season (Bahman Ghobadi, Iraqi Kurdistan/Turkey)
Bahman Ghobadi (Turtles Can Fly) tackles Iran’s repressive theocratic regime in telling the story of Sahel, a humanist poet unjustly incarcerated for “treason” after the Islamic revolution. The story begins in 2010, when Sahel is released after serving a 27 year sentence, then flashes back to show how he was denounced by his wife’s chauffeur in a stunning act of jealousy and betrayal. Once free, Sahel attempts to reconnect with his wife (Monica Bellucci, convincing as a Persian woman) who now lives in Turkey with her two grown children and has been led to believe her husband died years earlier. This is full of poetry, both literally recited on the soundtrack and in the stunning widescreen images of Turkish land and seascapes, which, at their best recall last year’s majestic Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (whose director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, receives special thanks here). Ghobadi’s reach may sometimes exceed his grasp and some of his aesthetic ideas, unlike those of Ceylan, verge on the pretentious. But there’s no denying his sincerity or ambition: this is an occasionally disturbing, occasionally beautiful and always bracing reminder of how intolerable and anachronistic the persecution of artists can still be in the twenty-first century. That this is being presented by Martin Scorsese, and the presence of Bellucci in the cast, virtually guarantees it will return to Chicago at some point.