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. 

Filming in very muted colour and using a sparse. Bresson- like soundtrack of distant voices and train noises, Sales draws us into the lives of this old man and his wife with meticulous setups which alter very slightly as each ritual of eating, sleeping and preparing for the day is repeated. When the wife threads a needle, the shot is held until she docs it, and because the camera viewpoint is so revealing, it becomes a moment of high tension and meaning. Perhaps a little too hermetic and calculated at times, since the director was clearly imposing a pattern of movement and behaviour on the players, the film nevertheless spoke out with a kind of creative fervour lacking elsewhere in the competition. Although it won several awards, the Jury might have dared public disapproval and given it the Golden Bear, awarded instead to Ted Kotcheff’s overheated and facile Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

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