Monday, January 07, 2019

IrFFNY ’19: Tale of the Sea

A writer ought to take satisfaction from the publication of his work, but it doesn’t work that way when the authorities censor and bowdlerize books arbitrarily. Alas, Taher Mohebi will not find much consolation on the home front either in Bahman Farmanara’s Tale of the Sea (trailer here), the opening night film of the inaugural Iranian Film Festival New York.

Mohebi suffered from a trauma-induced schizophrenic breakdown, but he is now sufficiently stable to return home. The problem is his wife Jaleh does not want him back. In fact, she wants to divorce the Gloomy Gus. However, his concerned doctor convinces her to humor the “Maestro,” at least for the near term.

Unaware of Jaleh’s frustrations, Mohebi slips back into his old absent-minded habits. He also starts hallucinating encounters with long-departed friends. However, things come to a head when Parvaneh, the daughter of Jaleh’s estranged best friend, now deceased, requests permission to visit.

Tale is an elegiac film several times over, dedicated to a number of Farmanara’s fondly remembered fellow artists, particularly Abbas Kiarostami, whom Mohebi calls out by name at one point in the picture. It is all about coming to terms with loss, disappointment, and failure in the twilight of life. Tale is definitely a meditative film, but Farmanara also rather boldly and openly slips in plot points involving Mohebi’s conflicts with censorship and the travails of his former student Amir Dashti, who is hunted and beaten by the secret police.

Farmanara himself plays Mohebi with the befuddled elegance Alec Guinness might have brought to the role in an Ealing comedy. He is charming and dignified, but it is easy to understand why his wife finds him insufferable. Yet, viewers will still sympathize with him when he finally faces the full totality of his life’s decisions.

Fatemah Motamed-Aria is emotionally brittle and intense as the long-suffering Jaleh, but Leila Hatami really lowers the boom as Parvaneh, an innocent born of scandal, almost like a character out of Hawthorne novels. Ali Mosaffa (Farhani’s The Past) is solid but somewhat under-employed as the conscientious doctor, but veteran thesp Ali Nassirian adds sly grace as the ghost or vision of Mohebi’s friend Hooshang.

Farmanara says quite a bit in Tale, while keeping up deceptively simple appearances. Although it is not an overtly allegorical film, it is not much of a stretch to argue Mohebi represents a generation of artists who did not get what they expected from the Iranian history they lived through. Very highly recommended, Tale of the Sea screens this Thursday (1/10), kicking off the 1st IrFFNY, at the IFC Center.