by Jeffrey M. Anderson
Those of us who remember the 1980s remember Iran as a villainous empire. In 1979, Iranian activists took over the American embassy and held 54 Americans hostage for 444 days. The crisis helped cause President Carter's downfall and President Reagan spent half his time in office demonizing the Iranians.
But by 1997, America had moved on. Suddenly two strange things happened. A small, colorful, beautiful film called Gabbeh opened in American theaters, and a masterpiece called Taste of Cherry tied for the Palm D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Iranian cinema of course, began long before 1997. But since then it has become an international phenomenon, a New Wave on par with the French movement of the 1950s and 60s, the German movement of the 60s and 70s and the Hong Kong movement of the 80s and 90s.
The directors behind the two groundbreaking films were Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh) and Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry). Iranian filmgoers knew their names long before we did, of course, as evidenced by Kiarostami's extraordinary 1990 film Close-Up. The film depicts the true story of an Iranian citizen, Hossain Sabzian, who impersonates Makhmalbaf to the extent that he begins living with a family, telling them that he plans to use them and their home in his next film. We first meet Sabzian riding a bus and reading one of Makhmalbaf's published screenplays. It's apparent that Makhmalbaf is a household name, even if - like many American directors - his face isn't famous enough to have prevented this deception.
Arguably the greatest of all Iranian films, Close-Up seamlessly combines controlled surfaces and uncontrolled realism. The first part of the film is pure Kiarostami; a reporter hires a cab and together they drive to the house in question. During the ride, they talk and the reporter outlines the whole story. They arrive at the house and the driver waits outside. Kiarostami diverts our attention to a paint can rolling and clattering down a hill. Before long the film moves to the courtroom for Sabzian's trial. Even experts have been unable to agree on whether Kiarostami stole into the courtroom to film the trial or if the entire trial was re-created for the cameras after the fact. Certainly Sabzian's story up until the trial is created. And in essence it all works for the benefit of the film, revealing a story about storytellers and deception.
The film's crowning moment comes near the end when Kiarostami manages to get Sabzian and the real Makhmalbaf together. The filmmaker picks up the imitator at the prison and gives him a ride on a motorcycle to wherever he might want to go (he chooses to buy flowers for his victims). But the microphone planted on Makhmalbaf malfunctions, cutting out every so often, so that we can't hear everything the two men say to one another. Was this an accident, or again, a kind of deception?
Both Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf began their careers early, and their styles are as different as their personal histories. Born in 1952 in a poor section of Tehran, Makhmalbaf began working at a young age to support his family. He helped organize an Islamic militant group and was arrested and jailed for four years after stabbing a policeman (in self-defense). Released in 1979, he devoted his life to art and began writing plays. His fourth feature Boycott (1985) is about these experiences, and, almost ironically, that film's lead actor, Majid Majidi, later became one of Iran's most successful directors.
Makhmalbaf's early films, like Boycott, The Cyclist (1987), The Peddler (1987) and Marriage of the Blessed (1989) have a brutal, angry edge to them. Marriage of the Blessed in particular; it opens on a hospital scene, a room packed with both physical and mental casualties of the Iran-Iraq war. A barbaric staff rushes around with a rattling tray, giving shots to screaming patients who are suffering bloody flashbacks.
Before long, Makhmalbaf embarked on his "cinema trilogy": Once Upon a Time, Cinema (1992), The Actor (1993) and Salaam Cinema (1995), each of which traced and paid homage to his love for films both local and international.
Once Upon a Time, Cinema
The trilogy seemed to loosen him up, for he then launched his most internationally successful films, starting with Gabbeh. These films were filled with a new patience and a devotion to small, beautiful details. The anger was now gone and replaced with a kind of wonder.
The 75-minute Gabbeh follows the nomadic Ghashghai people who make colorful carpets that tell stories. One young woman longs to marry a mysterious horseman who follows their tribe around, but her family's traditions prevent the marriage from being acceptable. The film is more of a fairy tale than a romance. But it's seductive and heartbreaking without being angry, which may be precisely why international audiences took to it.
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