It rather makes sense banned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi would be drawn to films shot in cars, because he might need to make a speedy escape during production. This is his fourth film he has completed and released internationally since the Iranian film authorities formally prohibited him from pursuing his chosen art and professional vocation, following up the similarly auto-centric Tehran Taxi. This time, Panahi, appearing as a meta-version of himself, takes a road trip to Iran’s mountainous Turkish-speaking Azeri region in 3 Faces, which opens this Friday in New York.
Apparently, social media is just as problematic in Iran, as it is in the West, judging from the suicide video sent to famous screen thesp Behnaz Jafari, played by herself. According to the video, Marziyeh Rezaei killed herself, because her family forced her to give up her acting ambitions and Jafari had refused to respond to any of her pleas for help. Jafari insists she never received any messages from the young girl, which seems plausible, considering the video was sent to Panahi, on her behalf.
Reluctantly, Panahi is driving Jafari to Rezaei’s Azeri village to either verify or debunk the videotape. He would prefer to stay clear of the mess, but his moderating influence will probably be helpful. Much to his dismay, Jafari has been reacting more out of anger for the embarrassment and inconvenience of the kerfuffle than compassion for Rezaei’s plight.
The title is a not-so obvious reference to three actresses, at very different stages of their careers. Jafari is famous, so she is welcomed by the village with open arms. On the other hand, Rezaei’s ambitions are treated as a source of family shame by her father and boorish brother. However, she probably has it easy compared to the unseen Shahrzad, a once-popular star of pre-Revolutionary Iranian cinema, who has been scorned and harassed by the villagers since her arrival. There are also three kindred spirits in the film, who have been prohibited from pursuing their cinematic callings, with Panahi replacing Jafari.
The mere fact that 3 Faces exists at all is cause for celebration. It has also already played a small part in cinema history, because Asghar Farhadi spoke out unequivocally against Panahi’s travel ban, when he appeared at Cannes, which was screening his latest film, as well as 3 Faces. Ironically, of Panahi’s post-ban films, 3F is probably the slightest thematically and the least concerned with social commentary, even though it is the most traditionally movie-like. Nevertheless, there is still something acutely compelling about Panahi’s humanistic response to the troubles of Rezaei and the one-named Shahrzad. As in This is Not a Film and Taxi, Panahi is a mature, reassuring, and affectionately awkward presence, like a dissident dad-figure.
Panahi’s shaggy charisma continues to wear well over time, but it is Jafari who really takes possession of the film. She is sly and caustic at first, but she also makes the most of her rewarding meta-character development arc. In many ways, Jafari is a diva, but she still develops some surprisingly arch comedic rapport with Panahi.
Even a relatively minor Panahi film is cause for celebration. 3 Faces is also a graceful tribute women thesps and filmmakers, who risk much to express themselves creatively in Islamist Iran, as well as a subtle homage to Panahi’s former mentor and collaborator, Abbas Kiarostami (the echoes of Kiarostami’s Close-Up are especially pronounced). Highly recommended, 3 Faces opens this Friday (3/8) in New York, at the IFC Center.