Friday, April 22, 2022

Panah Panahi’s Hit the Road

Families are pretty much the same everywhere and they face very similar challenges, mostly. This Iranian family has trouble relatively specific to (but widespread within) the Islamic Republic. Their adult son faces vaguely defined political charges, so they intend to smuggle him over the Turkish border. It could be their final family road trip in Panah Panahi’s Hit the Road, opening today in New York.

Apparently, this is not an uncommon family experience in Iran. It is almost like the Western ritual of driving kids off to their first day of college, except it might be forever. Of course, the Mother and Father cannot let on to their seven or eight-year-old Helion that his big brother might be leaving for good. They have to keep up appearances and he just wouldn’t understand. In fact, there is a very real possibility the morals police could be following them, which would hold disastrous consequences.

Compounding the family’s stressful deceptions, their ailing family dog Jessy is failing fast, but they have concealed his fatal condition from the younger brother. Mother and Father constantly bicker over Jessy, in coded language, but it is really a proxy to express their fear and frustration over the Older Brother’s impending exile.

Panahi is indeed the son of Jafar Panahi and a former protégé of Abbas Kiarostami. Not surprisingly, you can see echoes of his father’s later work, especially in the claustrophobic setting of the car, which contrasts with the grand mountainous exteriors and the theme of movement and escape. Despite Older Brother’s circumstances, Panahi tries to avoid making political and ideological statements. However, his inclusion of forbidden, pre-Revolutionary popular songs issues a quiet rebuke of the state’s pervasive censorship. Nevertheless,
Hit the Road was shot and produced legally, above-board and in the open, unlike his father’s most recent films (such as This is Not a Film, Closed Curtain, and Taxi).

More than anything,
Hit the Road is a family study, very much in the tradition of Kiarostami. Hasan Majuni and Pantea Panahiha are both terrific as the Father and Mother. They argue like mad and roast each other with zingers, but always in a way that makes it clear this family uses humor to deal with their problems. As Older Brother, Amin Simiar is alternately annoyed with or guilt-ridden for his family, in deeply compelling and credible ways. However, everyone watching the film will be ready to leave Rayan Sarlak’s loudly and cringingly hyperactive Younger Brother at a rest stop, after about ten minutes (or less).

The important thing is how profoundly true Panahi’s dialogue rings. It is deceptively simple, but loaded with meaning. This is a sad film that is all about endings, yet it is loaded with life and attitude. Highly recommended,
Hit the Road opens today (4/22) in New York, at Film Forum.