Compelling Nonsense: The Filmfarsi Paradox
by ALI CHENAR in Tehran
18 Jul 2011 00:09
[ cinema ] Iranian filmmaking has attracted the attention of a global audience through the work of directors such as festival and arthouse favorites Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi, and Asghar Farhadi. However, their films -- many of which are not officially sanctioned for screening in Iran itself, but are widely accessible via DVD -- are hardly the only choices available to the average Iranian. The genre of filmfarsi (Farsi movies) attracts a broad, "Main Street" audience. Last week I went to see a product of this genre: The Story of Paria, directed by Fereidoon Jeirani with a cast including Mahnaz Afshar, Mostafa Zamani, Setareh Eskandari, and Bijan Emkanian.
The movie house I attended is in the center of Tehran, amid the capital's hustle and bustle. As I entered the theater, I saw a diverse audience: young couples who had sought refuge from the morality patrols outside, chador-clad women with their teenage daughters, a smattering of lonely guys in love with the lead actress or simply looking to kill some time, and several groups of friends. Maryam, a 22-year-old student, said that some were fans of Afshar while others, as Maryam's friend and classmate Mitra acknowledged, were there for Zamani. The movie began and for the next hour and half I subjected myself to a cruel mixture of cliché, paradox, symbolism, and bizarre rationales. When it ended, I felt suitably sad, like many of my fellow audience members -- some girls were crying. At the same time, I was annoyed; my intelligence had been insulted.
The film has an arguably clever structure. Two thirds of the story is told in flashbacks. The protagonist, Siavash (Zamani), is a passionate, religious young man whose father was killed in action in the Iran-Iraq War. He has all the noble virtues: he is compassionate, kind, and caring. He is also a skilled journalist, whose writing is admired by his rich, traditional uncle (Emkanian), for whom he works. The uncle's admiration does not extend to Siavash's ideas, which he criticizes as bold and confusing. Still, the uncle loves his nephew and hopes that he will eventually marry his daughter, Hadis (Eskandari), to whom he is betrothed. Hadis is a good, conservative girl. Like Siavash, she also lost a parent in her childhood -- her mother has been dead for many years. As the story opens, she is the textbook definition of a good Muslim woman: she wears a chador, is in love with the "right" man, and obeys her father.
This family fairytale is thwarted by Sarvin (Afshar), a freelance photojournalist. She goes to the same foreign language institute as Hadis, where she caught Siavash's eyes by "staring" at him. When police officers chase her, Siavash runs to her rescue and their romance begins. Sarvin has all the qualities required of the official bad girl stereotype. She comes from a "ruined family" -- her parents are separated and her mother is the second wife of a construction contractor. She is expelled from college for smoking in the prayer room. The film is not allowed to explicitly portray her manner of dress as immodest, but the viewer is meant to get the idea from the strangely long necklace she wears, which does not match anything else in her outfit. She is also a drug addict. The screenwriters, Rahman Seifi-Azad and Leila Larijani, have not done their job halfway here. Siavash falls in love with Sarvin and, defying his mother and relatives, marries and tries to save her.
The rest of story is a potpourri of all the bad events that could possibly befall Siavash. He loses his job in his uncle's firm. He fails in his effort to get Sarvin to quit her addiction. She runs away from the rehabilitation clinic and starts using again. Ultimately, Siavash starts using drugs to show Sarvin that she can quit if she wills it.
Here your correspondent experienced a moment of discomfort. A few moments before that incredible turn of events, I heard Maryam say, "Now he is going to become an addict to show her how to quit." And sure enough, it happened. I felt disconnected from the generic conventions -- from the very thought process -- that allows for such a narrative move. I certainly did not see it coming.
In any event, Siavash is not as strong as he had hoped. His addiction ruins his marriage and Sarvin leaves him. He spirals into poverty and ever-worse drug abuse. He dies, finally, of complications caused by HIV in an ambulance with Hadis, loyal and loving as ever, by his side. At that very moment, Sarvin, clean and free of her addiction, is at the airport, leaving for Frankfurt with the son she had with Siavash, believing he died long ago.
If there is any compliment to be paid to the makers of The Story of Paria, it is to their ability to cram so many convoluted relationships and so much unrealistic behavior into a mere 90 minutes of screen time. Some viewers nonetheless felt a connection to the film. One chador-draped lady declared to her teenage son, in reference to Siavash, "See, be careful! Don't become like him." The audience's reaction interested me so I asked Maryam, Mitra, and Ali, a 19-year-old student, to join me for coffee afterward to talk about the film.
Maryam, who studies social sciences, was sad about Siavash's end, though she thought Sarvin's character was badly defined: "The truth is divorce is common these days, and not every divorce means a ruined family and a drug-addicted kid." On the other hand, the very fashionable, goatee-sporting Ali, from west Tehran, thought we had misinterpreted the story. "Look at the symbolism.... Siavash is the name of a Shahnameh prince whose stepmother ruined his life," he observed, evoking Ferdowsi's classic Book of Kings. "The movie refers to how men can be ruined by women, and that is not unrealistic."
Mitra disagreed. In her opinion, "The idea that Siavash thought he should rescue Sarvin is very wrong. Siavash in the Shahnameh did not die rescuing anyone." Mitra, who was raised in a liberal household without the usual restrictions, said, "Siavash thinks himself righteous, so he permits himself to be irrational and rebellious. Sarvin did not need him as her knight in shining armor. She quit when her mother pushed her, not Siavash." She concluded, "Siavash was wrong to begin with." All three know someone like Hadis in their own families. "I had this cousin who obeyed her father in everything. The outcome -- she is married to a jerk who beats her whenever he likes," said Maryam.
In the course of our conversation, I realized that for all of its paradoxes and cheap clichés the movie had been able to connect to some of these young viewers' experiences. When I asked them about the movie's assumptions, however, they did not deceive themselves. "Do not take that too seriously," Ali said. "I take it that the director had to tell his story this way, otherwise the censors would not have given him a license to make this movie." He smiled: "These days, we ignore these clichés. We know they are untrue." And that is the essential paradox of filmfarsi: the tales take place in a world of fantasy and implausible conventions, and yet still manage to convey a contemporary message to their audience.
Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau