This year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film went to A Separation, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s multilayered portrait of a marriage under stress from both within and without. For aficianados of international cinema, it was no surprise to see Iran walking away with the coveted prize; Iranian movie makers have been enjoying a strong run over the past 15 years or so. From Dariush Mehrjui’s Layla and Santoori to Jafar Panahi’s The Circle, Crimson Gold and Offside , from the films of Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Kandahar, A Moment of Innocence) and Abbas Kiarostami (A Taste of Cherry, Ten, Close-Up), to the acerbic, ironic commentary of Kamal Tabrizi’s The Lizard—in which an escaped convict achieves fame as a wandering preacher—Iranian films, and Iranian filmmakers, have produced some of the most memorable movie experiences of the early 21st century.
Granaz Moussavi would like to join that storied company. The expat actress/poet/filmmaker, currently based in Australia, returned to Iran for the making of My Tehran For Sale, filming some scenes covertly as she delineated the repressed lives of a group of young, artistically-inclined Tehranis. Unfortunately for Moussavi, and more so for the audience, the story never really gets going, and what should be a representation of aimlessness on screen becomes genuine aimlessness within the story itself.
Marzieh Vafamehr plays a theatre actress who appears in the kind of overwrought “performance art” pieces that tend to be meaningful rather than enjoyable. (They also tend to be made fun of by, ahem, snarky know-it-alls. I mean, mime, for God’s sake.) Marzieh becomes involved with Saman, an Iranian expat from Australia who has returned to Tehran. The couple quickly become committed to each other and make plans to emigrate to Australia together.
Naturally, bureaucracy intervenes, as does the tyranny of the police state: when attending an illicit rave, the couple witness a brutal assault by their self-appointed moral guardians. Friends are arrested and beaten, names are taken, interrogations held. How all this will affect the couple’s attempt to emigrate remains to be seen.
It’s a straightforward enough setup. The filmmaker strives to make it more interesting by fragmenting the structure—scenes are broken up and shuffled, their order deliberately jumbled, so the viewer is called upon to do some mental reconfiguring. This is all well and good, but would be better spent on a story with more interesting characters. Apart from the fact that Marzieh and Saman are young lovers trapped in an corrupt and stultifying environment, the viewer learns little about them. To be blunt, they are not terribly interesting people.
The movie runs only 95 minutes but feels longer, with static camera work that only serves to reinforce the slow pace and incremental drip of story. There are compelling scenes, particularly at the beginning during the rave attack. Presumably, this is the much-mentioned “undercover” filming. Soon, though, the story settles into its languid pace, with little to engage the viewer beside the nagging feeling that yes, things in Iran really are lousy. Marzieh’s situation grows more complicated, as certain revelations make themselves known in the second half of the story. By the end, though, many viewers will have lost interest in how the things turn out.
The DVD is a bare-bones affair. Apart from the movie itself, there is a “discussion guide,” which is a computer-ready pdf file—19 pages!—containing questions and commentary about the film, the director, and Iran itself. (Sample questions: “How does the storyline progress, time-wise?” “The crowd that gathers outside the Australian embassy shares information and frustrations with one another. What do you learn about the process of traveling abroad and/or emigrating, for Iranians, in this scene?”) This is an interesting adjunct to the film itself, but it has the unwelcome effect of making the whole exercise feel like something of a social studies lesson as opposed to, you know, a story.
The movie is released as part of The Global Film Initiative, a well-meaning attempt to bring interesting foreign films to light for Western audiences. The key word here is “interesting”. Trying to widen the distribution of foreign films is a worthy objective, but the movies themselves must merit the attention. There are plenty of talented Iranian actors and directors out there—the award for A Separation suggests as much. This movie, however, falls considerably short of that standard.
Editor’s Note: Marzieh Vafamehr was sentenced to 90 lashes and a year in jail for her role in My Tehran for Sale. See The Guardian story, “Iranian actress released from jail” (David Batty, 29 October 2011) for more information.