Tuesday, April 11, 2017

SFFILM ’17: Duet

To pursue professional and artistic goals, Iranian often have to go abroad (assuming they have the money and connections). The process of expatriation and repatriation, the coming and going, leads to uncertainty in personal relationships. Sometimes reunions are joyous and sometimes they are awkward. When Hamed the composer encounters his old flame, it will be exceedingly distressing for all involved in Navid Danesh’s Duet (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 San Francisco International Film Festival.

Hamed has been back a year, but he is only now seeing Sepideh, thanks to a tip from their old mutual college crony, Kaveh. While studying in Paris, Hamed met Minoo, whom he married after their return. Following graduation, Sepideh broke with her former mates, eventually marrying Massoud, who largely kept in contact with his college friends. Tragedy has recently struck his tight knit social circle, complicating Massoud’s reactions when he deduces Sepideh has seen a man from her past.

He has one particularly significant clue: a demo recording Hamed cut shortly before his departure, which Sepideh often listens to when she is in a pensive mood. It was meant to be a piano-cello duet, but he arranged it as a piano solo for his study abroad application. That seems rather symbolic, doesn’t it?

Right now, Iranian cinema has a major comparative advantage in brutally honest domestic dramas. You couldn’t make a film like Ordinary People in Hollywood today, yet it looks rather shallow when compared to recent Iranian releases like The Salesman, The Risk of Acid Rain, Nahid, and Melbourne. Like the best of Asghar Farhadi’s films, Danesh derives suspense from interpersonal turmoil rather than genre situations. It is a tense, uncomfortably intimate film. Granted, Danesh sort of belly-flops with a flat, anti-climactic ending, but the quality of the fab five principal cast-members is so strong, we can forgive its flaws.

As Massoud, Ali Mosaffa truly puts on a masterclass for screen acting. Over and over, he demonstrates the power of suggestion, while guarding his character’s secrets. Negar Javaherian’s performance as Sepideh is raw and honest, but Hedieh Tehrani really lowers the boom as Minoo. Morteza Farshbaf (better known as a director) hits the right notes as Hamed, the sad-eyed sad sack, but Kaveh Kateb really makes the film as his well-meaning but increasing remorseful namesake.

Frequently pairing up (hence the title), Danesh’s assured cast create some remarkable duets. As a screenwriter, he probably has some room to tighten up his craft, but he certainly understands how to guide his thesps. Exquisitely stifling, Duet is another very fine Persian film, quite highly recommended when it screens this Thursday afternoon (4/13), Saturday (4/15), and Sunday (4/16) as part of this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival.