Monday, April 13, 2015

The Boot [Chakmeh] (1993)

From my programme notes, written in 2014, for theatrical release of the film in the UK. -- E.K.
Seven years before the release of Mohammad Ali Talebi’s The Boot, the film which first brought him to international attention, he directed a puppet road movie, in which a gang of young mice unite against a vicious cat, whom their parents have given up hope of defeating. In The Boot it is real children who are fighting against the odds – and rather than a vicious cat, it is the crowded capital of Iran, Tehran, which threatens to overwhelm them.

Most of Talebi’s films about children feature an absent parent or two. In this case, young Samaneh’s father has died. In a shoe store, where the girl’s mother stares longingly at a happy couple shopping together, the gaze not only underlines the absence of her husband, but also the absence of a father figure in Samaneh’s life. Talebi’s interest lies in showing how children manage to fill that void.
Samaneh is a war child. The film was produced by Shahed TV (which translates as Martyr’s TV) whose remit was to depict the lives of those who lost family members during the eight-year war with Iraq. The heavy burden on children born during the war is subtly manifested throughout the film; particularly in one scene which takes place on a public bus, when a young boy is seen guiding an elderly blind man. These children, through pure curiosity, resilience and stubbornness are unconsciously reconstructing a damaged country.

Talebi’s cinema, rather than using children, is learning from them. It invites us share their patience and persistence. When at a certain point in the story, Ali, a disabled child, loses the titular boot to an unfriendly dog in the alley, he just stands there and waits. The rainy weather perturbs the dog and it scarpers from the alley for shelter. It is only then that Ali, who has just stood there and endured the downpour, can have the boot back. In a typical American film, we would be more likely to see the hero kid devise an ingenious plan to reclaim the boot.

The film is loaded with witty remarks and personal touches. Like Hitchcock before him, Talebi likes to make cameos in his films. In Bag of Rice, he can be spotted helping the old lady played by Masoumeh Khanoom with an address. Here in The Boot he appears just before the moment when Samaneh and her mother enter the shop where they buy the eponymous footwear. Compare this staging, too, to Hitchcock’s appearance in front of the pet shop in The Birds– where the key motif of the film is let loose.

It is more than a case of simple homage on Talebi’s part, however. While there are no elements of shock in The Boot, at least in the familiar sense of the word, Talebi practices some of the narrative techniques associated with Hitchcock, which were less popular in the early 1990s than they are again now. For instance, taking structural inspiration from Psycho and Family Plot, the focus of the story shifts in the middle of the film from Samaneh to Ali.

The film is also a clever continuation of a particular style commonly associated with Iranian cinema. The interior scenes –with their rather simple, still-life mise-en-scene and emphasis on dark colours – are heavily influenced by the great Iranian filmmaker Sohrab Shahid-Saless, who calibrated a popular aesthetic approach to depicting the life of the poor, in his 1970s masterpieces such as A Simple Event. But Talebi’s graceful depiction of every single character in the film is something unmatched, even among Iranian films.

When Samaneh’s mother is asked, by her boss, to stop bringing her daughter to the workshop where she is employed –and the neighbour, too, refuses to take care of her – she sees no option but to smuggle Samaneh into her workplace. This scene, which could easily have been engineered toward creating suspense, is a fine example of Talebi’s dramatic preferences: the boss notices Samaneh’s feet under her mother’s chador, but ultimately ignores it and switches off the CCTV. But unaware that she can relax, and thinking she is still under observation, the mother hides Samaneh under the sewing table. At this point, Talebi demonstrates great empathy, moving the camera under the table and leaving us to watch Samaneh playing with her dolls in spite of the awkward circumstance in which she has been placed. The Boot sees the beginning of a recurring preoccupation in Talebi’s cinema, substituting superficial attractions with profundity, presenting a humanist vision of life that he sees among the working class.

In the last sequence, when Ali returns the lost boot to its owner, Samaneh and her mother run to the door to thank him, but he is already gone, vanished into the alley. The name ‘Ali’ links the boy to a picture of Imam Ali on the wall of Samaneh’s shabby, single-room house, evoking the Shia mythology of the Imam of compassion and justice. And the shot of the empty alley, which ends the film, is probably the most sublime shot that Talebi – an artist deeply fascinated by the idea of sainthood in daily life and especially among children – has ever filmed.

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