Dir: Bahman Farmanara. Iran. 2001. 93mins.
Bahman Farmanara's first film in 20 years is a semi-autobiographical meditation on death and art whose mordant comic tone is an acquired taste but still a rather elegant one. With the way already paved by international festival acclaim, the film's immediate appeal will be to the growing audience for Iranian cinema. Western viewers used to more familiar fare from this country, such as fables about small children or stories about its dispossessed (women, the rural poor, ethnic minorities), will be surprised and intrigued by Farmanara's candid, sometimes cynical portrait of a sophisticated urban elite. Still, with careful positioning, this could blossom quietly on the specialist circuit.
After studying film-making at the University of Southern California during the 1960s, Farmanara emerged as a successful director in Iran when his career was cut short by the fall of the Shah. After spending a decade in exile in Canada, he returned to Iran in 1989, only to have all his scripts rejected by the censor until this one. There is, then, a strong personal element to Smell Of Camphor, Scent Of Jasmine, in which Farmanara plays the main character, also called Bahman, a world-weary director who has not worked for years. Contemplating the death of many friends (including that of his real-life fellow film-maker Sohrab Shahid Saless, who died in 1998) and unable to recover from the loss of his beloved wife, he is quite simply tired of life.
Divided into three acts of unequal length, the film begins as Bahman picks up a lone woman hitch-hiker (Roya Nonahali) on his annual pilgrimage to his wife's grave. After she leaves, he discovers to his horror that she has left the corpse of her newborn baby on his back seat. "No problem," declares his wheeler-dealer lawyer (Kianian), saying there's no need to call the police. But Bahman's problems are just beginning.
At the cemetery, he is dismayed to find that the bungling authorities have sold off the plot he had reserved for himself next to his wife. He's haunted by the smell of camphor, which he associates with death (corpses are bathed in it). His mother is trapped in the living death of Alzheimer's. Nagged by his doctor and sister (Kianian) to take care of his heart condition, the tubby Bahman's only response is to light another cigarette. Meanwhile he continues to work on what he claims is a documentary about Iranian funeral traditions for Japanese television. His friends suspect he's actually organising his own funeral.
On one level the film is, indeed, a chronicle of death rites, from the scene in which Bahman tries, frugal to the last, to haggle for a discount on his own shroud to one where he suddenly enters a magical grotto of coloured fairy-lights used as funerary ornaments. But it's also a portrait of a disenfranchised generation of artists and intellectuals adrift in modern Tehran, as well as of an individual seeking a meaning to his existence. "I'm not afraid of dying," Bahman says at one point, "but of having a futile life."
Later scenes move into the realms of hallucination and fantasy before the film's constantly shifting mood finally settles upon a note of unexpected and gentle optimism. The performances are all engaging, above all Farmanara himself as the melancholy artist with the nerve to show his (own) plight, not self-pityingly, but with irony, intelligence and humour.
Prod co: Hadayat Film
Int'l sales: Farabi Cinema Foundation Tehran
Exec prod: Fazlollah Yousefpour
Prod: Morteza Shayesteh
Dop: Mahmoud Kalari
Prod des: Jilla Mehrjoubi
Ed: Abbas Ghanjavi
Music: Ahmed Pejman
Main cast: Farmanara, Reza Kianian, Hossein Kasbian, Mahtaj Nojoomi, Firooz Behjat Mohammad.