Milk of Human Kindness

Balanced on a knife-edge between the exotic and the familiar, Djomeh is among the most formally accomplished of new Iranian films. Hassan Yektapanah's dryly comic first feature—which shared the Camera d'Or with A Time for Drunken Horses at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival—enriches a deceptively anecdotal plot with a combination of observational camerawork, strong narrative rhythms, and deft characterization.

Djomeh's eponymous protagonist is a 20-year-old Afghani exile working on a dairy farm in the mountains of northern Iran and known to the locals mainly as the "milk boy." His middle-aged Iranian boss, Mahmoud, assumes that Djomeh left Afghanistan for economic reasons or perhaps to escape civil war, but the milk boy's motivations turn out to be personal—he departed his homeland as a result of an unhappy, or at least inappropriate, romantic involvement, having fallen in love with a widow 12 years his senior.

This revelation emerges during the course of the four lengthy discussions that Djomeh has with Mahmoud, riding beside him in a battered pickup truck as they drive the dusty road, village to village, collecting milk from the townspeople's goats and cows. Djomeh professes his surprise that Mahmoud, who appears to be in his early forties, is still single. In Afghanistan, he explains, the boss would already be a grandfather; why, Djomeh asks, do Iranians postpone their marriages? We might also wonder—one of the movie's recurring motifs has Djomeh and Mahmoud coming across a wedding procession in nearly every trip to town.

Heart like a wheel: Jalil Nazari in Djomeh
photo: New Yorker
Heart like a wheel: Jalil Nazari in Djomeh


Written and directed by Hassan Yektapanah
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Written and directed by Tony Gatlif
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September 7 through 13

Edgy Movies: Roots and Branches
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September 7

Djomeh's curiosity about Iranian marriage customs is not theoretical. It's soon revealed that he has his eye on the demure young girl who, forever adjusting her chador, works behind the counter in a village grocery store. Djomeh's travels with Mahmoud are counterpointed by the boy's carefully orchestrated solo visits to this store. Eager to extend his permitted time with the largely silent girl, he routinely overpurchases canned goods. (This, in turn, contributes to Djomeh's ongoing conflict with his irascible older kinsman, an economic refugee who also works for Mahmoud and sends money home to his family.)

As the naive Djomeh, Jalil Nazari scarcely seems to be acting. His ardent attack on the dialogue in every scene underscores his role as a foreign yokel in more sophisticated Iran. Nazari's broad, open face could have been made to express persistence. Despite the regular taunts of the village kids, Djomeh seems oblivious to the local prejudices against foreigners. (There's an effortlessly metaphoric bit of business which has one mischievous urchin using a piece of mirrored glass to reflect the sun into a blind man's unseeing eye.)

Djomeh is earnest, a bit clumsy, and utterly single-minded. In another age, this story would have been titled The Passionate Milk Boy. By contrast, Mahmoud Behraznia—who plays the grizzled, homely boss—comes across as the film's only professional actor, his experience belied by the affable quips and significant silences that largely go over his young employee's head. When, in their third drive-time discourse, Djomeh presumes to give his boss some personal advice, the truck abruptly dies mid-conversation. By the fourth conversation, the boss has gotten an idea of his own.

The 38-year-old Yektapanah served as an assistant director for both Abbas Kiarostami on Taste of Cherry and Jafar Panahi on The Mirror; Djomeh isn't overtly self-reflexive but feels strongly reminiscent of Kiarostami in its compositions and pacing. Yektapanah's camera is largely static, and he makes evocative use of offscreen sound. (There's a constant, reproachful moo throughout most of the action.) Extremely process-oriented, the film has been designed as a rondo of mundane tasks (weighing milk, caring for cows) and routine interactions; the drama of this rueful not-quite-romance is skillfully grounded in a series of graceful repetitions.

Ultimately Djomeh is a movie about the yearning for what one cannot have. It's a universal theme, but where, outside of Iran, do we see this unforced economy of expression? At the close of the movie, a sadder (but not necessarily wiser) Djomeh simply exits the film. He vanishes through the door in a whitewashed barn wall and, closing it behind him, effectively closes the fiction of the film.

Vengo, French director Tony Gatlif's latest celebration of gypsy soul, sets a modest sliver of narrative in a fabulous widescreen landscape and surrounds it with a permanent party. Gatlif, whose strongest film remains the rhapsodic travelogue Latcho Drom, is basically a maker of musicals; here too, the abundant fiery performances seem to span time and space. Although Vengo is set in Andalusia, one band of Rom musicians seems to have just arrived from India and another features an Egyptian Sufi singer. An instance of mad flamenco under the stars segues into an episode of spontaneous belly dancing. In the most unusual celebration, the brooding, charismatic hero, Caco (dancer Antonio Canales, perversely cast in a nondancing role) takes his palsied nephew out on the town in Seville.

Vengo's perfunctory story line, mainly a bridge from one musical interlude to the next, has something to do with a blood feud between Caco's family and the rival Caravaca clan, operators of the local casino. Caco's doom is presaged by his frequent visits to his daughter's grave, but his fatalism carries very little weight. Vengo's vistas are so sumptuously empty and the male cast has such a surplus of scruffy elegance that the movie might be a multipage fashion spread in Vanity Fair. This sense of moody posturing has its own leisure-class quality, but it unavoidably mitigates Vengo's tragic finale—if not the power of the closing lament, which, like most of the numbers in the film, should inspire infectiously banged fists, smashed glasses, and overturned tables.

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