Wednesday 25 October 2023

Tabi’at-e Bijan [Still Life] (Sohrab Shahid Saless, 1974)

Still Life

Tabi'at-e Bijan (Still Life). 1974. Iran. Written and directed by Sohrab Shahid Saless. With Zadour Bonyadi, Mohammed Kani, Hedayatollah Navid. 93 min.

An elderly railway signalman is unable to understand the meaning of “retirement” when he is handed over his retirement letter. Still Life, the film that shook Iranian cinema to its core and won the Silver Bear at the Berlinale, is an unforgettable, masterfully paced exercise in stillness and loneliness that doesn’t shrink from depicting exploitative tendencies within contemporary Iranian society. Shahid Saless uses the inarticulacy of his protagonist as an aesthetic strategy and finds poetry in seemingly dead moments. Made only in 11 days and shot with the painterly vision of the cinematographer Houshang Baharlou, this landmark work pushed the boundaries of cinema like no other Iranian film of the 1970s. – Ehsan Khoshbakht

Tuesday 24 October 2023

Night of the Hunchback (Farrokh Ghaffari, 1964) | MoMA

Shab-e Ghouzi (Night of the Hunchback). 1964. Iran. Directed by Farrokh Ghaffari. Screenplay by Ghaffari, Jalal Moghadam. With Ghaffari, Pari Saberi, Paria Hakemi, Mohamad Ali Keshavarz.

Inspired by a tale in A Thousand and One Nights, this black comedy takes place over the course of one of those nights, as a troupe of traveling actors, the father of a bride, and a hairdresser and his assistant (played by director Farrokh Ghaffari himself) try to rid themselves of an unwelcome corpse while uptown Tehranis party to Ray Charles R&B. In a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry, Ghaffari, also a critic and film historian, intended this film as a critique of upper-class pretensions and an ode to simple folkloric pleasures, and while the film was a commercial flop the film nonetheless gained international attention and promised a new beginning for Iranian cinema. – Ehsan Khoshbakht

Monday 16 October 2023

Dayereh-ye Mina [The Cycle] (Dariush Mehrjui, 1974)

The Cycle (Dariush Mehrjui, 1974-76)

Dariush Mehrjui and his wife were brutally murdered on October 14, 2023. MoMA screens this film on November 1.

This harrowing tale of poverty and drug addiction in the slums, in which people desperately sell their blood to survive, is based on Gholam-Hossein Sa’dei’s short story “Garbage Dump.” Banned due to objections from the Iranian Medical Association, The Cycle was shelved for three years before it was eventually shown at the Shiraz Arts Festival. The left saw the story of the poor selling contaminated blood for injection into new veins as a metaphor for the corruption of Pahlavis. For Mehrjui, however, this was more a candid investigation of a real problem, and it eventually helped inspire the formation of the Iranian Blood Transfusion Organization. The casting of the popular filmfarsi star Forouzan was controversial, but her fine performance proved the versatility of Iranian actors. – Ehsan Khoshbakht

The Cow (Dariush Mehrjui, 1969) | MoMA

The Cow (Dariush Mehrjui, 1969)

Dariush Mehrjui and his wife were brutally murdered on October 14, 2023. MoMA screens this film on October 26.

This milestone of the Iranian New Wave portrays, with heartbreaking intensity, the themes of solitude and obsession in the story of a poor villager (unforgettably played by Ezzatolah Entezami) whose only source of joy and livelihood is his cow. When the cow is mysteriously killed one night, the metamorphosis begins. Based on short stories by psychiatrist Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi, The Cow was smuggled to the Venice Film Festival in defiance of an export ban, where it was almost immediately and internationally recognized as a masterpiece. Poignantly wrapped in layers of religion and leftist politics (two major forces of the 1979 revolution), The Cow came under the spotlight more than a decade later, when Ayatollah Khomeini hailed it as an example of “good cinema,” as opposed to the many “corrupting films” of the Pahlavi era. – Ehsan Khoshbakht

Wednesday 30 August 2023

Still Life (Sohrab Shahid Saless, 1974) reviewed by John Gillet for Sight & Sound

Perhaps Berlin’s main achievement was to reveal the progress of the young Iranian director Sohrab Shahid Sales, with A Simple Event (reviewed from last year’s Tehran Festival) in the Forum and Still Life in competition. The new film continues his preoccupation with the lives of inarticulate people—in this case, an elderly railway signalman who receives news of his retirement with utter incomprehension— developed through lengthy scenes in which the characters are simply observed going about their daily chores. Without Sales’ extraordinary control, the result could be  intolerable, but for me the film’s exact placing and timing of shots, rather like a slow symphony scored pianissimo throughout, was entirely hypnotic. 

Monday 28 August 2023

Sven Klangs kvintett (Stellan Olsson, 1976)

Playing at Close-Up Cinema in London on September 24, 2023. – EK

Voted by Swedish film critics as one of the "25 greatest Swedish films ever", Stellan Olsson's tender drama is based on a play by Henric Holmberg and Ninne Olsson, about the failed transformation of a dance band, formed by a group of young friends, into a proper jazz band in southern Sweden of the late 1950s. Excited by the discovery of a new musical language, they discuss Charlie Parker, and one of them, the saxophonist Lars Nilsson, goes as far as imitating his idol not only in his saxophone sound but also in his wild lifestyle. Shot in stunning black-and-white, many traces of the tableau-like compositions that Swedish cinema through figures like Roy Andersson became known for are already established here. So is the cracking humour. This gem of Swedish films is ripe for rediscovery.

Thursday 20 July 2023

Tranquility in the Presence of Others (Nasser Taghvai, 1969)

Tranquility in the Presence of Others

Nasser Taghvai, 1969, 84 min, Persian with English subtitles

Often seen as one of the indispensable films of the Iranian New Wave, Tranquility in the Presence of Others [Aramsh Dar Hozor-e Digaran] is a poignant and brisk cinematic adaptation of a story by leftist (and later exiled and banned) writer Gholam-Hossein Saedi, attacking the indecisiveness and empty rhetoric of Iranian intellectuals, as well as dissecting the patriarchal core of Iranian society. Banned after a single screening at the Shiraz Arts Festival of 1969 – a ban which was not removed until 1973 – it tells the story of a retired army general who travels to Tehran with his newlywed wife to visit his daughters, only to observe their unhappiness and casual affairs. As his mental condition deteriorates, the film’s tone shifts from sardonic to tragic. Tranquility in the Presence of Others delves into the anxieties of a country that is seemingly marching forward but retains a troubled, melancholic relationship with the past. The gender and social conflicts of Saedi's story are brilliantly translated into a bleak vision of Iranian society and the confusion of the middle classes.  – Ehsan Khoshbakht

Wednesday 12 July 2023

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2023: Favourites & Discoveries

The 37th edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato concluded last week but its memories live on. 

In Silk Stockings (Rouben Mamoulian, 1957), a quintet of melancholic expats freshly returned from a seductive Paris to a drab shared apartment in Moscow start reminiscing about the joys of the high life in the French capital. Soon it turns into a competition in remembering. Getting too intense where disillusioned Marxist-Leninists accuse each other of stealing one another's memories, Ninotchka (Cyd Charisse), fervently dedicated to the equal distribution of all kinds of wealth, steps in and declares: "Comrades, there are enough memories for all of us." Judging from the range and diversity of this year's picks by festival attendees, it seems that we should not be too worried about running out of memories until next June.

Statistics tell me "120,000 spectators" have viewed "470 films [in] seven cinemas," a 12% increase in attendance compared to previous year. Feelings tell me billions of memories have been made.

Nearly 120 participants from 39 countries have picked their "favourite film" at the festival, as well as their "major discovery" this year. Some have accompanied their choices with additional notes. It's a delight to read.

See their picks below.

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Monday 5 June 2023

Peter Cowie on Gharibeh va Meh (1974)

"Two years in the making, it is a vast, symbolist drama, set in some remote historical period (hazy even to Iranians), and bursting at the seams with action and bloodcurdling confrontations. Why a young man arrives in a boat to disturb the ritual of a small village, why he is pursued by a band of ominous, black-clad strangers, and why he takes once more to the sea, seems unimportant, for Beizai’s [sic] dazzling technique, clearly influenced by Kurosawa, sweeps all before it. No other Middle Eastern cinema could sustain such an ambitious and visually exciting production."  Peter Cowie / Sight & Sound, April 1975