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Tag Archives: The Cyclist

An Iranian Cinema Primer, pt. 1

In spite of the fact that Iran has been consistently demonized by the Western media since the Islamic revolution in 1979, the country’s robust national cinema has continued to be steadily exported to film festivals all over the world, winning over critics and audiences alike and exerting a major influence on the past couple decades of international film production (an influence that can be felt on movies as diverse as Zhang Yang’s Quitting and Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky). While I am by no means an expert on Iranian cinema, my understanding of motion pictures is much richer because of the titles listed below.

(The list has been broken up into two parts, with the second part to be published later this week. Part one spans the years 1963 to 1996, from the time Forough Farrokhzad made The House is Black, in many ways the “big bang” of Iranian art cinema, to when the first Iranian films began to make serious inroads in American art house theaters.)

In chronological order:

The House is Black (Farrokhzad, 1963)

The only film directed by renowned Persian poet Forough Farrokhzad, this extraordinary documentary/essay film dares to take a motion picture camera to a place that most human beings would otherwise never see: a leper colony. Farrokhzad asks viewers to gaze upon images deemed “ugly” by society but expresses extreme empathy for her subjects through a use of voice-over narration that combines quotes from the Bible, the Koran and her own beautiful poetry. Only 22 minutes long, this is one of my favorite movies of any kind.

The Cow (Mehrjui, 1969)

An unforgettable movie about a peasant who owns the only cow in his small village. When he takes a trip to Tehran and the cow unexpectedly dies, his fellow villagers decide to lie and tell him his prized animal has run away – only this well-intentioned lie leads to madness and death. Shot in stark black and white, this allegorical film is as deep as it is simple, a despairing portrait of human relationships poisoned by jealousy and fear. Director Dariush Mehrjui studied film at UCLA where he was taught by none other than Jean Renoir.

The Traveler (Kiarostami, 1974)

This is the first fiction feature of Abbas Kiarostami, arguably the greatest of all Iranian directors, and most of the stylistic and thematic concerns of his more famous later work can already be seen here in embryonic form. The story concerns an elementary school student who hoodwinks his classmates into giving him the money he needs to take a bus to Tehran and see his favorite soccer team in person. But upon arriving he learns there is a price for some things that can’t be paid with money. The child performances are excellent in this alternately poetic and realistic film.

The Runner (Naderi, 1985)

The first Iranian movie I ever saw (when it belatedly opened at Chicago’s old Film Center in 1994), Amir Naderi’s classic movie tells the story of Amiro, a homeless, parentless child who ekes out a living by shining shoes and selling ice water and recyclable glass bottles. Against overwhelming odds, he also manages to enroll in school and learns to read. The scenes of Amiro running, including one astonishing sequence set against the backdrop of an oil fire, offer a touching metaphor for the character’s desire to transcend his socio-economic status.

The Cyclist (Makhmalbaf, 1987)

Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s incredible film centers on Nasim, an Afghan immigrant living in Tehran who is virtually forced to perform a circus sideshow-like endurance test in order to pay for his wife’s medical bills: he agrees to the scheme of a shady promoter to attempt to ride a bicycle continuously for a week. As Nasim rides in circles in the same town square night and day, a crowd of spectators mounts (including politicians, gamblers and the media), all of whom attempt to manipulate the poor man’s plight for their own benefit. This powerful allegory is not unlike Bresson’s Au Hasard, Balthazar in that a holy fool character serves as a blank slate upon which the sins of mankind are imprinted.

Bashu, the Little Stranger (Beizai, 1989)

A war orphan of the Iran/Iraq conflict flees to rural northern Iran where he becomes a stranger in his own country, surrounded by people whose ethnicity, skin color and language are frighteningly foreign. Eventually he is taken in by a family who accept him as one of their own. This landmark film, shot in 1986 but not released until three years later, is reminiscent of Satyajit Ray’s immortal Pather Panchali in its unsentimental look at childhood, the simplicity of its visual style and as a rare peek into a way of life unencroached upon by modern civilization.

Marriage of the Blessed (Makhmalbaf, 1989)

A veteran of the Iran/Iraq war finds it impossible to return to his old life as a photographer and happily engaged man in Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s blunt and angry social critique. Reminiscent of Sam Fuller at his most lurid, this is full of unsettling and hallucinatory effects such as an unnerving use of distorting wide-angle lenses and a masterful sound mix that turns the clacking of typewriter keys into the sound of machine gun fire. One of the best movies ever made about the psychological scars of war.

Close-Up (Kiarostami, 1990)

Abbas Kiarostami’s masterpiece has been called the “greatest documentary about filmmaking” by Werner Herzog and it’s easy to see why; documentary footage of the trial of a man accused of impersonating director Mohsen Makhmalbaf (and conning a family into believing they would star in his new film) is interspersed with scripted scenes in which all of the principles have been invited to re-enact their lives for the camera. The melding of fiction and non-fiction techniques is common in movies but has rarely been as purposefully or cleverly employed as here, especially in the film’s climactic scene when alleged “technical problems” prevent the viewer from hearing crucial dialogue on the soundtrack.

The Need (Davoudnejad, 1991)

When Iranian movies first found favor with Western critics in the 1990s, they were frequently compared to the great Italian Neorealist films of the 1940s. While this equation is problematic as a blanket generalization, a film like The Need entirely justifies such comparisons; it is a simple, realistic story powerfully conveyed through amazingly naturalistic performances and dialogue. When two boys are promised the same job of working in a print shop, the owner decides to pit them against one another on a trial basis to see who can “earn” the job. The resulting conflict fuels a story about what it means to desperately need work, a universal sentiment that is rarely broached in movies.

A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, 1996)

My favorite Makhmalbaf film is this (pseudo?) documentary in which the director re-interprets a notorious event from his own youth – the stabbing of a police officer during an anti-Shah protest in the 1970s, a crime for which he was sentenced to five years in prison. Twenty years later, both Makhmalbaf and the police officer who was his victim cast and train two actors to play themselves as younger men in a recreation of the event. The very real anxiety the young actor portraying Makhmalbaf shows about having to stab the young actor playing the cop (with a fake, retractable blade) leads to a suspenseful, surprisingly gripping climax. A fascinating meditation on memory, history, politics and the cinema.

To be continued . . .

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Top 25 Films of the 1980s

25. The Cyclist (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1987)

Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s incredible film centers on Nasim, an Afghan immigrant living in Tehran who is virtually forced to perform a circus sideshow-like endurance test in order to pay for his wife’s medical bills: he agrees to the scheme of a shady promoter to attempt to ride a bicycle continuously for a week. As Nasim rides in circles in the same town square night and day, a crowd of spectators mounts (including politicians, gamblers and the media), all of whom attempt to manipulate the poor man’s plight for their own benefit. This powerful allegory is not unlike Bresson’s Au Hasard, Balthazar in that a holy fool character serves as a blank slate upon which the sins of mankind are imprinted.

24. The Shining (Kubrick, USA/UK, 1980)

23. Why Has Bodhi Dharma Left for the East? (Bae, S. Korea, 1989)

22. The Asthenic Syndrome (Muratova, Russia, 1989)

asthenic

21. The Green Ray (Rohmer, France, 1986)

20. Time of the Gypsies (Kusturica, Yugoslavia, 1988)

19. Distant Voices, Still Lives (Davies, UK, 1988)

18. Sans Soleil (Marker, France, 1983)

17. The Road Warrior (Miller, Austraila, 1981)

George Miller’s 1981 action-movie masterpiece is the best and most influential of the post-apocalyptic Eighties trend. Even more impressive is the fact that he did it all on a relatively meager budget of $2,000,000 — with old-fashioned (i.e., “real”) stunts and exceedingly clever production design in which an assortment of 20th century detritus is reconfigured in surprising ways (e.g., punk rock fashions and S&M gear happily co-exist with pieces of athletic uniforms). The film is set in the future, when gasoline is an even more precious resource than it is today, and concerns a former cop (Mel Gibson, reprising his role from the non-post-apocalyptic Mad Max) helping a gasoline-rich colony fend off attacks by a gang of marauding bandits. The climactic action set-piece, a long chase involving many different types of vehicles barreling through the barren Australian outback, takes up most of the second-half and ranks as one of the most exhilarating such scenes ever captured on celluloid.

16. Blue Velvet (Lynch, USA, 1986)

15. Once Upon a Time in America (Leone, USA, 1984)

14. Blade Runner (Scott, USA, 1982)

13. Hail Mary (Godard, France, 1985)

hail

12. A Nos Amours (Pialat, France, 1983)

11. Mon Oncle d’Amerique (Resnais, France, 1980)

10. A City of Sadness (Hou, Taiwan, 1989)

9. Love Streams (Cassavetes, USA, 1984)

8. Vagabond (Varda, France, 1985)

7. Brightness (Cisse, Mali, 1987)

Perhaps my favorite African movie ever is Yeelen, a hypnotic, deliberately paced art film that has all of the deceptive simplicity, power and beauty of a primeval myth. Niankoro is a boy living in rural West Africa who must undergo various rites of passage in order to become a man, which culminates in challenging his evil sorcerer father in a duel to the death. Western critics are fond of invoking Oedipus Rex when reviewing writer/director Souleymane Cissé’s masterpiece but all of this film’s potent and elaborate symbolism is apparently based on local folklore and not influenced by outside sources.

6. Raging Bull (Scorsese, USA, 1980)

5. Come and See (Klimov, Russia, 1985)

4. Berlin Alexanderplatz (Fassbinder, Germany, 1980)

3. The Ballad of Narayama (Imamura, Japan, 1983)

2. The Decalogue (Kieslowski, Poland, 1988)

My opinion of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s monumental achievement — 10 one-hour movies that correspond to the 10 commandments, originally broadcast on Polish television — is inextricably bound to the circumstances under which I first saw it. I watched all 10 hours projected in 35mm, exhibited in two-hour installments a piece, while standing in the back of a movie theater that had sold out all of its screenings. As Stanley Kubrick noted, what may be most impressive about The Decalogue is the way Kieslowski and his collaborators were able to successfully dramatize ideas. It’s fun to think about how the individual episodes relate to the commandments: the first episode is a literal adaptation (a man puts his faith in the “false God” of technology — with tragic results) while others are more oblique (the “thou shall not commit adultery” episode is a tale of romantic obsession and voyeurism in which none of the characters are married). Kieslowski went on to even greater fame by subsequently making arthouse blockbusters in France (The Double Life of Veronique, the “Three Colors” trilogy) but The Decalogue easily remains my favorite of his movies.

1. L’argent (Bresson, France, 1983)

Robert Bresson’s swan song, as tight and compressed as a Ramones song, is a masterful update of Tolstoy’s short story The Forged Note. Bresson’s ingenious narrative follows a counterfeit bill, initially passed off in a shop as a schoolboy prank, which sets off a chain of events (an “avalanche of evil” in the director’s own indelible words) that ends with a young man murdering an entire family with an axe. This vital, rigorous movie, made when the director was 82 but seeming like the work of a much younger man, is the ultimate artistic statement about the destructive power of money.


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