Any Iranian film with a history this torturous must talk some pretty serious truth to power. Banned at home, Kianoush Ayyari’s family saga has been slow to roll out international, due to the Islamist authorities’ bureaucratic foot-dragging and finger-wagging. Somehow Ayyari convinced the Iranian State Police’s film division to put up percent of the financing, but they were less than amused to subsequently discover they had funded a story about an honor killing. In its way, it is also a haunted house tale, but it is guilt and denial that torment Kabal’s clan rather than a spirit. The sins of the past hang over successive generations in Ayyari’s The Paternal House, which screens as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects.
The year is 1929, but it is very much like today when it comes to Islamist attitudes towards women. The details will be forgotten, but for some reason Kabal has resolved to kill his daughter for supposedly dishonoring the family. He will recruit her ten year old brother Motashahn to help bash her skull in and bury her under the cobblestones of their backroom. Although the outraged uncle is now duly satisfied, Kabal’s wife Masumeh is suspicious of the cover story. However, it is not until 1946 that she learn the full truth, with dire consequences.
As Motashahn ages from ten to eighty-five, he will continually witness the bad karma rain down on his family as a result of his crimes. Matches will be broken, resentments will fester, and their business will suffer. Yet, he keeps scrambling to maintain the cover-up, while clinging to his twisted notion of honor.
Frankly, it is perversely spectacular to watch the plague of misfortunates visited on Kabal’s clan. There is a grim logic to it all that is profoundly compelling. It is deeper than just history repeating itself and the sons bearing the sins of the father, but those truisms most definitely apply in full force.
Even though the workshop in question and the adjoining courtyard are relatively spacious, Ayyari creates an unsettlingly claustrophobic atmosphere. The vibe is unrelentingly tense, but also acutely tragic. Basically, the ancestral home become a nest of vipers for which the patriarch has no one to blame but himself.
Obviously, this is bold stuff in Iran, approaching the outright radioactive. However, a number of prominent screen actors lent their talents to the controversial project. They are all quite believable as a family, albeit a severely dysfunctional one. Yet, perhaps none is more uncomfortably poignant than Shahab Hosseini as the grown 1990s grandson, who is two generations removed from the murder, but it still hopelessly mired in its consequences.