Still Lives in Perpetual Motion


Iranian culture sometimes seems to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, its pre-revolutionary past buried under political repression, its present riven by the gaps between men and women, religious and secular society. But the history of Iranian cinema reveals deep continuities. This series celebrating seven new Iranian films and one classic, running with a 10-film retrospective devoted to Amir Naderi, illuminates the latest developments in a distinguished tradition.

Sohrab Shahid Saless’s Still Life (1974) recalls the stark majesty of a Walker Evans photograph with its affecting portrait of an elderly guard at a remote railway crossing. The guard’s hours are regulated by the schedule of passing trains, while his aged wife weaves rugs to supplement their meager income. Like Chantal Akerman in her earliest films, Saless sets up the rhythms of daily life; a single deviation means that disaster has struck. His patient observation of dispossessed people began a revolution in Iranian cinema, years before a broader revolution struck.

Among the new offerings, One More Day (2000) comes closest to the hypnotic tone of Saless’s film. A man meets a woman at a Tehran bus stop each day. When the bus arrives, he enters with the men in front, she with the women in back, and they face each other across the great divide. First-time director Babak Payami never fully explains their relationship, parceling out bits of plot and information with skillful pacing and extreme discretion. His use of documentary realism and experimental narrative to chart the fraught terrain of gender relations makes for a challenging and intriguing drama.

Over the past decade, Iranian films have focused increasingly on urban women’s lives. Daughters of the Sun (2000) moves that exploration into rural society. A girl’s father shaves her long black hair, dresses her in boy’s clothes, and sends her to work at a faraway rug factory where the master is cruel and her female coworkers are curious. Mariam Shahriar’s debut feature displays her unusual gift for expressive imagery, but the relentless hardships that her heroine undergoes soon become wearisome.

Amir Naderi’s career as a filmmaker has spanned pre- and post-revolutionary Iranian cinema, and stretched to the shores of Manhattan, where he’s lived since 1989. Orphaned at age 5, Naderi survived as a child on the streets of Abadan, shining the shoes of foreign sailors and selling ice water to workers in its busy port. An autodidact whose schooling ended after the fifth grade, he made his way to Tehran as a teenager, where he found work as a still photographer on movie sets.

At age 25, he made his debut as a director with the gangster movie Goodbye, Friend (1970), not included here. In Waiting (1975), a short experimental film, he found a more personal voice. Nearly without dialogue, Waiting conveys its minimal story through images that draw upon the symbolic power of silent cinema. Each day a boy brings a cut-glass bowl to the house of a neighbor and hands it into a pair of beautiful arms reaching out from behind an ornate door; after a few moments, they hand it back to him, filled with ice. An allegory about spiritual refreshment and the limits of vision in Islamic society, Waiting is suffused with a visceral poetry.

The director’s youthful experiences, worthy of a film by de Sica, inspired The Runner (1985), a landmark in Iranian cinema. Amiroo, a street urchin who lives on an abandoned ship, is in love with motion; he cheers the planes that pass overhead, begs the tankers docked at sea to bear him away, and runs as far as his two skinny legs can carry him. Naderi’s vision of his fight for survival culminates in a scene of hallucinatory intensity.

A, B, C . . . Manhattan (1997), one of two features Naderi has made since emigrating to this country, is a portrait of three women who cross paths on the ramshackle streets of Alphabet City. Virtually plotless, it’s carried along by his acute sensitivity to character and environment, and the losses that echo throughout these young lives. It took an Iranian filmmaker to see this familiar downtown stomping ground with clear eyes.