Friday, April 23, 2010

Tribeca ’10: The White Meadows

It is so tragically apt that the latest film from unjustly imprisoned Iranian film directors Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi uses tears as a major plot device, it is almost embarrassing to point out the obvious irony. However, it is the repressive Iranian government that should be embarrassed. On March 1st, the authorities arrested Rasoulof, Panahi, and group of their friends. Sixteen days later, Rahmat was released, but Panahi remains to this day, held incommunicado in the dungeon-like Evin Prison. Though Panahi’s fate is still in doubt, at least his work can be appreciated freely in the west, along with that of his colleague, Rasoulof. In what ought to be the media event of the 2010 festival, Tribeca will screen Rasoulof’s The White Meadows, a strange and unsettling cinematic fable edited by Panahi.

The water has never been saltier and the people living on Lake Urmia’s sandy white isles have never been so miserable. A karmic hand seems to be at work. Seeking relief from their sorrow, they turn to Rahmat, a tear collector, who gathers his watery harvest during their funerals, confessions, and inquisitions. However, after leaving a grieving family, Rahmat is surprised to find a stowaway on his small boat, the young Nissim, who has set out on the truly archetypal quest to find his prodigal father.

As Rahmat and his unexpected apprentice travel from one island to another, Meadows subtly grows ever more fantastical and ill-fated. Indeed, its episodic nature seems like a conscious attempt to evoke the spirit of ancient epics like The Odyssey, while keeping its exact time-frame deliberately vague.

Though he functions as an enigmatic journeyman, Hasan Pourshirazi’s Rahmat is still fascinating to watch as he slowly yields up his mysteries. As young Nissim, Younes Ghazali shows talent beyond his years, effectively serving as the audience’s proxy, expressing perfectly believable horror at the injustices he witnesses.

Totally absorbing despite its unhurried pace, Meadows is a testament to the filmmaking talents of director Rasoulof and editor Panahi. As filmed by cinematographer Ebrahim Ghafouri, it is a visually dazzling film, often effectively utilizing wide angle shots of its black-clad figures, standing out as contrasting specks against the blinding sunlight and the eerie white sands and saltwater of Urmia.

Given the prevalence of tears and suffering in Meadows, it is hard not to read additional meaning into its story. Frankly though, Rasoulof wisely keeps the political allegory largely obscure. Still, there seem to be clear parallels between the bad karma the islanders are suffering and the sins of the Islamic Revolutionary government. Certain critiques of Iranian society are also inescapable, especially its rampant misogyny. Indeed, when a beautiful woman dies terribly young, one Islander tells Rahmat it is for the best, lest she inspire unfulfilled lust in the men. Also worth noting, Meadows scrupulously adheres to Iran’s stringent regulations forbidding all forms of physical contact between men and women on-screen.

Meadows is a masterfully crafted film that resists lazy categorization (such as “political allegory” or “Arabian fantasy”). Filmed under difficult circumstances, it is also recommended beyond reasons of its cinematic merits. Clearly, the current Iranian regime would like the outside world to forget Rasoulof, Panahi, and their films. Instead, go see White Meadows during Tribeca and check out Panahi’s Offside, a spirited film about a group of young women trying to sneak into a soccer game to cheer on the national team, even though their presence is forbidden by Islamist law. Highly recommended, Meadows screens today (4/23), Monday (4/26), Tuesday (4/27), and Saturday (5/1).