Dir: Babak Payami. Iran. 2003. 88mins.
There were three Iranian films at Venice last year; and all three were newsworthy. One (Hana Makhmalbaf's Joy Of Madness) because the director was only 14. Another (Abolfazl Jalili's The First Letter) because the director had been detained in Teheran by the authorities. And the third - Babak Payami's The Silence Between Two Thoughts, which screened in the Upstream sidebar - because the film had been confiscated by the Iranian censors.
What was actually shown in Venice was a beta-version assembled from two separate video copies - one of which had the time code running along the bottom. If one were not aware of the depressing reality of the harassment of artists in the Islamic Republic, one might even see the "smuggled footage" trick as a smart marketing exercise. The Rotterdam International Film Festival's Hubert Bals Fund is now paying for Payami to produce a 35mm print, although the screening at the festival later this month will be on video.
It certainly adds a frisson of excitement to a film whose arid beauty, and refusal to map its characters' emotional states, demands a good deal from the viewer. Payami's previous film, Secret Ballot (a Venice Best Director winner in 2001) was a painfully slow moral-political parable with moments of surreal humour. The Silence Between Two Thoughts is the same, without the humour. Hardcore Iranian cinema buffs will lap it up, but Silence is unlikely to reach even the limited crossover audience of a film like The Circle or Kandahar.
The long opening shot has the double virtue of establishing the story and imposing the aesthetic rules that will govern the next hour and a half. We see a young man in a desert landscape, in medium close-up, wearing a white turban, balaclava-style. There is a noise of traffic in the background, and some distant voices. The man raises a rifle, takes aim, and shoots. After a long pause, he does the same again. He is about to shoot a third time, when the order comes to wait.
At long last, the camera pulls itself away from his face and pans around to reveal the broken wall which is the place of execution in this far-flung Iranian village. The first two bodies have already been carted away, leaving a young woman, in black chador, standing immobile, waiting for the bullet. We learn that she has been spared because, as a virgin, she would go straight to paradise, according to Koranic law. As this is not acceptable to the nameless mullahs who have condemned her for a nameless crime, the young marksman is ordered to marry the woman, deflower her, and execute her the following day.
It's a stunning opener, not least because it sets up the kind of high-concept moral conflict that Hollywood eats for breakfast (there are definite shades of Monster's Ball in the storyline). But Payami spends the rest of the film resisting the psychological development that such a premise invites. We never really come close to knowing what the executioner, or his victim-bride, are feeling; even the fact that the marksman is struggling with a moral dilemma has to be taken on trust for much of the film.
Of course, relations between men and women in remote Iranian villages close to the border with Afghanistan are spectacularly undemonstrative, and the director is culturally correct in making an undemonstrative film in which glances, the pouring of tea and an unforgiving landscape whose houses and desert merge in a triumph of dust say more than the characters' words. Payami has declared that he is fascinated by the "indirectness and encryption" of communication in Islamic cultures; and Silence... has both qualities in bagfuls. But jaded Westerners need more dramatic meat on the bone if they are going to gnaw away at it for the full 90 minutes.
Prod co/int'l sales: Payam Films
Prod/scr: Babak Payami
Cinematography: Farzad Jodat
Ed: Jafar Panahi, Babak Karimi
Main cast: Maryam Moghaddam, Kamal Naroui