Censorship may have spurred Iranian filmmakers on to new and subtler forms of expression, but their works also draw upon a long artistic legacy. This series focuses on Iran’s little-known film culture from just before the revolution (though it includes two contemporary New York premieres) and it proves that great Iranian films— visually inventive, socially engaged, philosophically fertile— have been around for years.
Stark and beautifully photographed, Sohrab Shahid Sales’s Still Life (1974) follows an aging worker in rural Iran who shuffles between the railway crossing he guards and the hut he shares with his wife. A hypnotic pace conveys the imperturbable rhythm of their lives, until disaster strikes. The film marked a turning point in Iranian cinema, away from Hollywood models and toward the vivid depiction of social reality.
This tradition continues in works such as Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror (1997), which will be reviewed next week. Like his earlier feature, The White Balloon, it observes a little girl as she navigates the streets of Tehran alone. Negotiating public and private space is also a tricky business for women in The May Lady (1997), by Rakshan Bani Etemad, Iran’s best-known female director. Its heroine, a divorced filmmaker, has fallen in love, but her teenage son objects to her suitor. For a state-sponsored film on “the exemplary mother,” she interviews all sorts of women— convicts, war widows, the mothers of slain soldiers— and finds it impossible to choose between them. This film explores with surprising frankness the conflicts of a culture that still confounds self-immolation with motherhood.