Monday, January 12, 2015

First Look ’15: I for Iran

You can find some rather unpleasant images and references in the text books of post-Islamic Revolutionary Iran. Nobody understands that better than an Iranian-Persian filmmaker’s Persian tutor. However, he still uses a problematic text due to a lack of better options. His language lessons will illuminate deeper truths in Sanaz Azari’s I for Iran (trailer here), which screens during the Museum of the Moving Image’s 2015 First Look.

Azari was born in Iran, but lived in Brussels since early childhood. As a result, she did not speak Persia until she enrolled in classes as an adult. During her studies, she was struck by the way language carries cultural specific codes and meanings. This was particularly so with respects to Persia and Iranian identity, even and especially following the revolution. As he bemoans their textbook, Behrouz Majidi will expound on the beauties and ironies of Persian culture in a series of improvised lectures.

That might sound rather academic, but Majidi is the sort of screen presence who could read the Brussels phone book and keep the audience riveted. His delivery is sort of like vintage Mark Twain—drily witty and deceptively elliptical. Just when you think he is hopelessly off point, he brings each mini-monologue home with panache. At times he waxes nostalgic for lost Iranian treasures, like the storied Shirazi wine the Islamist government has long since forbidden. When he addresses current events, such as the 2013 presidential elections, his analysis also sounds pretty darn spot-on.

Unfortunately, that means Majidi is more of a realist than an optimist. However, his love for Persian culture and nostalgia for the Iran that once was is wholly engaging and at times quite touching.  In between his improvised riffs, Azari presents a sort of visual free association based on the particular Persian letter under discussion. Frankly, these seem to work better over time, with the latter chain of images taking on far more evident meaning. Still, for the most part, they just take viewers away from the heart of the film.

I for Iran might sound simple and in terms of its formal structure it certainly is. However, despite its mere fifty minute running time, it overflows with thoughtful insights on human nature and grand themes like freedom, cultural survival, and human dignity. For such an unassuming film, it really sticks with viewers. Even though it is hard to define its cinematic category and the exact nature of Majidi’s performance, it still ought to be a star-making turn. Surprisingly moving, I for Iran is very highly recommended when it screens this Saturday (1/17), with the equally difficult to classify International Tourism as part of this year’s First Look at MoMI.