Shelf Life

Critics can't seem to shut up about the new Iranian "wave," but for most of us it's a nonissue, since the stateside-release record on these most exalted of international art films is nearly as thin as Iran's own record on human rights. If you've only seen The White Balloon, you haven't seen much. Hope comes in the form of Facets Video, the Chicago-based rent-a-rarity mail-order house that has undertaken a large-scale series of Iranian releases on its own label. Now there's no excuse for missing the Iranian express, because it won't last forever. Some of the films, like the already released Kiarostami jewels Where Is the Friend's House? and Life and Nothing More . . ., are indeed timeless, though the patient, breath-catching Kiarostami standard is one few Iranian movies, or movies of any stripe, can measure up to.

Rather, the new Facets spate fills out the movement's edges, affording us glimpses of how other, less crucial Persian filmmakers meet the creative challenges of governmental censorship and international regard. Thus, Tahmineh Milani's The Legend of a Sigh (1991) and Ebrahim Mokhtari's Zinat(1994) are both earnest, preachy message movies addressing, timidly, the struggle of Iranian women, while Rakhshan Bani-etemad's censor-worrying Nargess(1992) is a riveting, James Cain­in-Tehran tale of a thief on the fringes of Islamic society trying to go straight, and failing.

Then there are the metamovies: Varuzh Karim-Masihi's The Last Act(1991) is an engaging if predictable foray into self-consciously theatrical Agatha Christie­land— a kind of Let's Scare Forugh to Death— but it's got nothing on Bahram Beyzai's Travellersor Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Once Upon a Time, Cinema. The former is a sublimely visualized metaphysical meditation on fate, ritual, and grief that opens with a car journey we're told outright will end in slaughter; cut to the wedding party that awaits them. Beyzai orchestrates the action as if it's an ironic pageant for marionettes, his camera being only the swooniest of participants. Still, it's Makhmalbaf's ardent, preposterous fantasy that steals the thunder. In a vaguely unreal past, a Chaplin-esque cinematographer saves his own skin by seducing a sultan with movies— and Makhmalbaf does the same by us.

 
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