Monday, May 07, 2018

UCLA Celebration of Iranian Cinema: Blockage

If this is how street vendors are abused for lacking a proper license, just imagine the beatings meted out by the Basij morality police. Ghasem might be a thug, but he has his limits. Frankly, he would rather take a bribe than make an arrest. Unfortunately, that is why his short-term contract as an officer of the municipal street vendor auxiliary will not be renewed. Ghasem thinks he has a better deal percolating, but life will rudely gum up the works in Mohsen Gharaie’s searing Blockage (trailer here), which screens during this year’s UCLA Celebration of Iranian Cinema.

Just when Ghasem thought his schemes were coming to fruition, his life turns to ash. He has taken his wife’s inheritance to pay the down payment on a truck he hopes to use to collect recyclables and possibly also rent out. However, she was dead-set on using that money to buy a flat of their own. She is so disappointed, she intends to abort their long-awaited baby, out of sheer disgust with his genes. Right, they do not dork around with half-measures in Iranian films.

Regrettably, Ghasem is having trouble concentrating on the home front, because one of the vendors he recently bashed has filed charges. To get him to withdraw the complaint, Ghasem will have to help the desperate older man recover his iPhone, if it really is his iPhone. Everything gets even sketchier during the course of this errand.

Although not a crime film per se, Blockage shares the sinister fatalism and grueling one-darned-thing-after-another pace of a movie like A Simple Plan. Ghasem is an utter cad, who makes every bad decision available to him and even perversely invents new ones, yet we cannot look away. Frankly, it is impossible to say whether we are rooting for or against him, but each new low he hits is spectacular in its own way.

Hamed Behdad gives a bracing tour-de-force performance as Ghasem, the desperate uber-user. Watching him spin out of control is quite a sight to behold, but he makes each and every step in his downfall painfully believable to watch. Conversely, Baran Kosrari witheringly undermines his authority and indicts his egocentric corruption as his exasperated wife Nargess. Mohsen Kiaie helps anchor the film, standing somewhere between them as Ghasem’s somewhat less corrupt and more responsible partner Mehdi.

Blockage is an exhausting film, because Gharaie maintains such a high level of tension, amid a scrupulously realistic, street-level setting. Watching it is like the experience of viewing Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly for the first time. It offers a profoundly pessimistic view of human nature, but it is just a terrific film. Very highly recommended, Blockage screens this Friday (4/11) at the Billy Wilder Theater, as part of the UCLA Celebration of Iranian Cinema.