Evidently, former Iranian megalomaniac Ahmadinejad did not think much of shorts. That was a good thing. Rather than compromising her artistic integrity to receive official state sanction for a feature, Rakshan Bani-Etemad embarked on a series of short films that were comparatively less regulated by the authorities. With his successor projecting a more conciliatory face, she has since joined them together into a braided narrative. You would hardly know it from watching the finished product, which flows together in an intricate Short Cuts kind of way. She presents a bracing vision of an Iran beset by all manner of social pathologies, but it is always most difficult for the women in Bani-Etemad’s Tales (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 edition of Film Comment Selects.
In recent years, Bani-Etemad has largely worked as a documentarian for reasons explains above, but those who know her previous narratives will find even deeper meaning when her old characters return for call-backs in Tales, criss-crossing each other as they deal with life’s challenges. Fittingly, the two best segments, by far, are the first and the last, but there is still plenty of interesting material in between.
We will sort of see events unfold from the POV of an intrepid but much censored documentary filmmaker, who kinds of acts as Bani-Etemad’s surrogate. As some might know from Under the Skin of the City, the cabbie driving him into the city is deeply in debt from an ill-advised foray into crime. However, it will be his second fare, his sister’s childhood friend who has since been tarnished by scandal that delivers the first real jolt of stinging, naturalistic drama.
From there, we will witness the cabbie’s mother try to navigate the red tape of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, eavesdrop on two grown children jokingly (we assume) planning to fake an abduction, and witness an abusive husband confront his acid-scarred wife (the eponymous character from Nargess) in her women’s shelter. Eventually, Bani-Etemad brings it home with an intimate but biting verbal sparring match conducted by one of the shelter’s reformed drug addict counselors and the organization’s mini-van driving, who is shuttling her and a new client back to their home bass. In some ways, their exchanges are peculiarly Iranian, yet there is a universality to their increasingly heavy conversation that hits you on a deep level.
In a strange way, the secondary tone of Tales constantly shifts between late night existentialism, free-wheeling absurdity, futile romanticism, and outright tragedy. Yet, the bedrock feeling of helplessness is always present. It features a consistently strong ensemble, especially Mohammadreza Forootan and Mehraveh Sharifinia as the cabbie and the fallen woman of the first tale and Baran Kosari and Peiman Moadi as the mismatched couple in the closer.
We like to think Iran has its own special problems rooted in its oppressive system of governance, which it clearly does, judging from the travails of Bani-Etemad’s characters. However, we generally presuppose they are immune to more worldly issues, like drugs, street crime, illiteracy, economic inequities, and AIDS as a result. Tales acts as a corrective to that assumption. They actually have both kinds of societal ills. It is also an engrossing film that really takes us into its characters’ long dark nights of the soul. Highly recommended, Tales screens this Friday (2/20) and Sunday (2/22) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects.