Every national film movement has its peaks and valleys, and it appears that Iranian cinema, having captured the interest and imagination of audiences, critics and film-festival programmers over the past 15 years, is well beyond its peak. It may even be in real decline, judging from the recent offerings on the international festival circuit, this year’s widely disparaged edition of the Fajr film festival (by far the country’s most important) and now UCLA’s 18th annual survey of new Iranian cinema.
Like the stock market as a forward indicator, Fajr was reportedly such a disastrous sign of Iranian cinema’s decline that many festival regulars swear they won’t be returning. The blame can easily be spread around: As in every film movement, once-vital filmmakers have grown exhausted; major artists, such as Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, now make most of their films abroad under artistically and politically friendlier conditions; and the hard-line wing of Iran’s Islamic-fundamentalist regime has applied its heavy hand to artists, so that recent critical triumphs tackling controversial themes (like Jafar Panahi’s Offside and Rafi Pitts’ It’s Winter) are rarities, while films pushing traditional mores and Islamic themes are coddled.
Still, it’s a pleasure to see that Kiarostami, Panahi and several other major filmmakers are a part of the portmanteau film Persian Carpet, which kicks off UCLA’s monthlong series this Friday. Inevitably, such films (in this case, episodes of around eight minutes each, made by 15 directors) never satisfy. Instead, the viewer must wait patiently — like the weavers laboring over the sort of elaborately designed rugs celebrated in the film — for those sequences that click into place and suggest something greater than their humble running time.
This doesn’t happen enough in Persian Carpet, but the moments where it does fully convey the unique power of Persian filmmaking. Kiarostami dwells on the intricate patterns of a massive carpet by using a roving overhead camera, while voices on the soundtrack recite Sohrab Sepehri’s love poetry. As always with Kiarostami, image and sound are elegantly interwoven, and the final moments issue a silent, sunny revelation. Panahi’s contribution, a firmly realist counterpoint to Kiarostami’s daytime dream, is a simple yet moving study of a soldier and his sister, so desperate to provide a dowry in her upcoming marriage that she’s willing to pawn her family’s most beloved carpet. Rakhshan Bani Etemad, whose recent dramas have been a major drag, returns to her documentary roots with a stunning look at a three-dimensional carpet modeled on the façade of Isfahan’s famed central mosque. Another master, Bahman Farmanara, doesn’t disappoint with a gorgeous, wordless contemplation of the life and death of a royal lover of carpets, possibly the legendary Prince Ehtejab, about whom Farmanara made a fabulous biopic during the great Iranian wave of the prerevolution ’70s.
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Two existentialist-leaning films on soldiers during wartime pop up midway through this year’s series — Kiumars Pourahmad’s Night Bus and Naghi Nemati’s Those Three, the latter of which is hands down the finest of the five titles previewed. Night Bus contrives to have a naive Iranian recruit during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war guarding a large contingent of Iraqi POWs as they’re transported to a prison in a bus driven by a cranky yet wise old coot. But its points about war’s futility are weak chai compared to the intense, snowbound assault of Nemati’s relentless portrait of a trio of AWOL Iranian soldiers. The bitter irony of Those Three is that just as the men sense they’re free from the yoke of command, they’re imprisoned by an endless landscape of snow and brutal weather, complicated by the presence of a pregnant woman who seems just as lost as the soldiers. Nemati’s film is landscape art amped to a level of engulfing dread that equals Larry Fessenden’s recent The Last Winter.
Among nonfiction films, Mahnaz Afzali’s The Red Card is sure to set tongues wagging in “Irangeles.” The film first appears to be the account of a sensational murder trial (still unresolved and well-known in the Persian community) in which Shahla Jahed, lover of national soccer star Nasser Khani, is accused of murdering Nasser’s wife. Watching Shahla’s unbelievably brazen and argumentative manner with the presiding judge is like witnessing a stunning, slow-motion car crash, and it’s easy to assume that she’s insane. She may be, but thanks to the film’s use of Shahla’s home videos of Nasser — and the cunning editing of Bahman Kiarostami (Abbas’ brilliant filmmaker son) — another perspective emerges, along with strong indications that Shahla may not be the murderer.
The Kiarostami effect is also felt in Amir Shahab Razavian’s Colors of Memory, whose hero, an Iranian-German doctor named Parsa (Shahbaz Noshir), is every bit as dull and stiff as the film itself. Parsa ventures home for the first time in 33 years and ends up in his family’s house in Bam, which was nearly flattened in a major earthquake a few years earlier. Razavian wants to echo the tremulous force of Kiarostami’s masterpiece And Life Goes On ..., which also places fictitious characters in a quake-devastated town. But the film never finds a rationale for its slim tale, and not even the fine support of Ezzatolah Entezami, the earthy veteran star of The Cow (the 1969 movie that effectively launched modern Iranian film), can give it a pulse.
18TH ANNUAL CELEBRATION OF IRANIAN CINEMA | UCLA Film and Television Archive at the Billy Wilder Theater | Through Sun., April 20 | (310) 206-8013 or www.cinema.ucla.edu