Panah Panahi raises the roof with his Directors’ Fortnight triumph
Dir/scr: Panah Panahi. Iran. 2021. 93 mins
Crackling with energy and outbreaks of exuberant lip syncing, riotously funny at times and quietly devastating at others, the phenomenal feature debut from Panah Panahi looks set to be one of the major discoveries of this year’s Cannes. A road trip in a borrowed car: a father laid up with a leg in plaster, a mother laughing through tears, a young child rattling around the vehicle’s interior like an errant firework. And an adult son who says nothing, his eyes fixed on the road ahead. From these basic ingredients, Panahi crafts a vibrantly humane and utterly relatable portrait of a family at a crossroads.
Thrillingly inventive, satisfyingly textured and infused with warmth and humanity, this is a triumph
The son of Jafar Panahi, Panah Panahi served as an editor and assistant director on his father’s most recent films, but this remarkably assured picture leaves no question that he’s a considerable talent in his own right. Further festival screenings are a given and the picture’s winning combination of humour, first rate performances and pre-revolution Iranian pop music should ensure distributor interest. If the stars align for the picture as beautifully as they do in one heart-stoppingly lovely moment in the film, there’s arthouse breakout potential here.
There’s not a single moment in the storytelling which feels rote, not a directorial decision which resorts to cliché. The film’s opening is a case in point. An insistent child’s hand stabs at a crudely drawn piano keyboard in time with the music which accompanies the scene. It becomes evident that the keys have been Biro’d onto the plaster cast on the leg of the father (Hassan Madjooni), who half-heartedly swats his son away like a persistent mosquito. A single shot takes in the mother (Pantea Panahiha), and then, outside the car, some distance away and staring back at his family with shadows in his eyes, the older son (Amin Simiar). It introduces not only the key characters of the but also hints at the dynamics between them all.
The early scenes are dominated by the child, who is never named but is referred to as “monkey face number two” and other, less flattering, monikers by his father. Rayan Sarlak, who was six at the time of filming, is a delight in the role – it’s a hyperactive onslaught of a performance which is reflected in the frazzled exhaustion in the faces of his parents. “Just warn them that he’s an idiot,” cautions his father, when the kid pinballs out of the car and into a minibus for a ride. But the love that underpins their impatience is evident in the way the parents protect him and distract him from upsetting truths: the fact that the family dog, Jessie, is on his last legs; the real reason for the journey which takes them deep into the mountainous country where Iran borders with Turkey.
Panahi demonstrates a complete mastery of tricky tonal shifts: a very funny moment involving a cyclist is followed by a veiled heart to heart between the parents which gives some indication of the gravity of the journey; a breathtaking wide shot, in which the single most important and emotionally wrenching event of the film plays out, is followed by a wondrous moment of fantasy which combines an homage to 2001 with a comic riff about Batman’s bashed-up batmobile. Thrillingly inventive, satisfyingly textured and infused with warmth and humanity, this is a triumph.
Production Company: JP Productions
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Producers: Panah Panahi, Mastaneh Mohajer
Cinematography: Amin Jafari
Editor: Ashkan Mehri, Amir Etminan
Music: Payman Yazdanian
Main cast: Hassan Madjooni, Pantea Panahiha, Rayan Sarlak, Amin Simiar