Friday, January 28, 2011

Sundance ’11: A Few Days of Respite

France has long maintained close relations with Iran. Yet, the country does not exactly welcome a pair of gay undocumented Iranians seeking refuge from oppression in Algerian filmmaker Amor Hakkar’s A Few Days of Respite, one of several films examining persecution in the Islamist country selected for the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

Mohsen is definitely the assertive one in their relationship. He controls the money, but insists they pretend to travel separately when on public conveyances. The loyal Hassan agrees to everything, even though he sometimes shows subtle signs of resentment. Realizing their relationship carries a death sentence, they have made it all the way to France. Their ultimate destination is Paris, but they have a brief layover in a mountain village, where they standout rather conspicuously. However, a lonely middle-aged woman Mohsen befriends on the train might represent a safe harbor, at least for him. Though Yolanda is eager to shelter Mohsen indefinitely, he can keep Hassan surreptitiously stashed in her attic for only so long. As Hassan’s jealousy builds, it becomes clear the situation is untenable.

Respite is a quiet, contemplative film that only directly addresses the oppressive policies of the Iranian government at its very beginning and end. However, those moments are certainly significant. Still, the clear majority of the film combines intimate character studies with elements of the illegal immigration issue drama, much in the tradition of Philippe Lioret’s oh-so ironically titled Welcome.

Regardless of its issues it might raise, intentionally or not, Respite showcases some very fine acting from its three principals. Director Hakkan gives a finely nuanced performance as the flawed but deeply human Mohsen. Samir Guesmi is understated almost to a fault as the intense Hassan, while Marina Vlady portrays Yolande with genuine dignity and vulnerability.

Respite is a work of great sensitivity, but it is a small film by any measure. Nice but not essential, it screens again today (1/28) and tomorrow (1/29) as the Sundance Film Festival continues in Park City and other points throughout Utah.