Dir. Abolfazl Jalili. Iran-France-Italy, 2003. 110mins.
Far too long, excessively self-indulgent and often repetitive, this autobiographical reconstruction of director Jalili's own adolescence in pre-revolutionary Iran should be a surefire hit on the festival circuit and in specialised arthouses, for its blunt, in-your-face indictment of Islamic fundamentalism, which ruled over his young years. Whether Jalili, who for obvious reasons was not allowed to attend the film's premiere in last year's Upstream section at Venice, will ever see it exhibited at home under the present regime, is doubtful. His portrait of the religious fervour and bigotry he grew under, leaves far behind in its harshness all the subtler, more circumspect criticisms made by earlier films from this country.
The Islamic religious establishment is painted as oppressive, narrow-minded, dogmatic and often corrupt. For the first time, there is frontal reference to the role of the Jewish community in Iran as an open-minded disseminator of Western culture and to their dramatic fate after the revolution, which is portrayed as a retrograde event throwing the country back into the Middle Ages. Audiences looking for more than just entertainment are bound to be fascinated by such statements, familiar when coming from the West, but rarely presented with such clarity by the Iranians themselves.
A modern day, humourless Candide let loose in a small, devout provincial town, somewhere in the late 1970s, 16-year-old Emkan (Mehdi Moradi) is a curious, intelligent youth who leads the morning prayers at school, is a 'mokaber' (a sort of prayer prompter at the mosque), an assiduous student of the Koran and has a gift for drawing and calligraphy which will turn out to be both a blessing and a curse. Like all boys of his age, he has more energy than he knows what to do with, is keen to learn everything on every subject but is also prone to engage in all sorts of pranks for which he is duly chastised either by his teachers or parents.
Deeply and chastely in love with the daughter of the Jewish cinema owner in town, he seeks with all the naive innocence of his age to uncover the truth and to defend justice while all the adults around him try to teach him how to be pragmatic rather than right. He cannot comprehend why drawing human faces, playing the violin, writing stories or reading non-religious books are all cardinal, punishable sins.
He respects religion but refuses to accept its arbitrary verdicts, and as a result, he is always in trouble, whether he is kicked out of the mosque for bringing a musical instrument in, expelled from school for leading a demonstration against the removal of its principal or considered a dangerous subversive for quoting Dostoevsky. The outbreak of the revolution puts an end to his shy, tentative romance, as the Jewish family is forced to leave town, and images of the cinema windows shattered by the hooligans and mountains of books set on fire, bring up chilling memories of Germany during the 1930s.
The personal involvement of Jalili, who is not only the writer/director of this project, but also the production designer and the editor, only too evident, which may explain his emotional earnestness and reluctance to move forward with his story as briskly as he should. Predictably enough , he is bent on underlining the chasm between religion, which can be enlightened and human, and the religious interpreters, who have monopolised it, and as such is far from an impassive observer.
In his eyes, the Jewish presence was a blessing, not only because of the girl Emkan falls in love with, but also because through them he was introduced to Chaplin's Gold Rush and, believe it or not, Preminger's Exodus, both of which are probably an anathema in today's Iran. Lovingly shot, Morady plays the lead role with with grim determination.
Prod cos: Novem Productions
Int'l sales: Menemsha Films
Exec prods: Emmanuel Benbihy, Mel Gee Henderson
Scr, ed, prod des: Abolfazl Jalili
Cinematography: Mehdi Majde Vaziri
Music: Mohammad Reza Shajarian, Homayoun Shajarian
Sound: Mazyar Sheikh Mahbooby
Main cast: Mehdi Morady, Mina Molania, Abdolreza Akbari, Fariba Khademy, Gholamreza Tabatabaei