Dir/Scr: Naghi Nemati. Iran, 2007. 77mins.
Naghi Nemati's assured, poetic debut proves that the Iranian talent factory is still up and running. Playing in Dubai after its Locarno festival bow and Toronto slot, this austerely-shot existential odyssey about three soldiers lost in a snowy wasteland seems tailor-made to illustrate Fellini's claim that 'cinema uses the language of dreams'. Those Three tests its audience's resilience, but the payoff for patience is substantial, as, without a hint of pretension, the film cuts its moorings with reality and leads us subtly into more elemental territory.
Those Three is a classic festival film. It will struggle to find theatrical distribution, though if the price is right it might attract niche distributors in markets with ultra-sophisticated arthouse audiences. If it ever makes it onto DVD, fans of Iranian cinema should definitely add this one to their must-see list.
Budgetary constraints, cultural inclinations and real or perceived censorship often encourage Iranian filmmakers to make pared-back parables, but Those Three has little of the implied social critique of other examples of the genre like Babak Payami's Secret Ballot or Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry. If there is a political message lurking behind the three lost and frozen recruits of Nemati's film, it's well buried; the film's intent seems more spiritual than political, its message hinging on the double-edged value of concepts like wilderness and brotherhood.
Though there are hints that he's being persecuted by an overbearing commander, we never really find out what makes plump, nervous Essi (Esmail Movahedian) walk away into the fog from his mountain training camp, or what persuades his two army buddies, stern Yousef (Yousef Yazdani) and bespectacled joker Dariush (Dariush Ghazbani), to follow him into the frozen wilderness. We learn little more about the three subsequently: it's only halfway in that we discover that Essi has kids and Dariush' chatty but banal conversation with his mum (after the recruits find an old phone and hotwire it to a passing line) reveals nothing. Occasional first-person voiceovers act more as a musical soundtrack than sources of information, underlining the desolation with phrases like 'we have become blinded in this brightness'.
But by refusing easy back-story explanations, Nemati pushes the disorientation of the here and now, as the three uneasy companions stumble through the white landscape, chatting and bickering. At one point, an Azeri smuggler emerges from the blizzard with a group of young boys that he says are his sons; soon after, the three companions come across a pregnant woman who has been robbed and abandoned, possibly by the smuggler. With little energy left for sympathy, the recruits nevertheless allow her to tag along. A little later the four come down to an earthquake-damaged village that is swamped in mud and devoid of inhabitants; they rest, make some phone calls, and struggle on. The film is book-ended by a scene of the three soldiers taking the waters in a thermal spring. By the end, this comes to seem like a dreamspace or a chamber of the afterlife rather than a real place.
The other-worldly atmosphere is enhanced by Hooman Behmanesh's carefully composed photography (which won an Asia Pacific Screen Award in Queensland last November); it isolates the human figures against the endless snowscapes (if a film were capable of inducing snow blindness, it would be this one). The monochrome palette makes the occasional splash of colour all the more striking: the soldiers' yellow jackets, the blue cloak of the pregnant woman. The sound design keeps the howling, whistling wind high in the mix, heightening the calm of the rare moments when the soldiers find shelter from the elements.
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Mohammad Reza Sharafoddin