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Cinema: The White Meadows

by DAN GEIST in New York

21 Jan 2011 21:01Comments
whitemeadows.jpgFilms as beautiful as Mohammad Rasoulof's Keshtzarhaye Sepid (The White Meadows) are not common. This one has the power to enchant even unseen. As I stood in line at New York's Tribeca Film Festival, waiting to enter another movie, I compared notes with a neighboring queuer on the festival pictures we'd attended. When she heard me utter the English title of Rasoulof's film, she sighed, eyes glowing in delight.

I thought for a moment of telling her that this extravagant reaction was, in fact, merited: the film is that beautiful. But, not wishing to mislead her, I could do no such thing. Because then I would have been obliged to add that it is the most severe new film I have seen in ten years. Her sigh was still echoing and I didn't have the heart. The conversation slipped into more easeful territory

The White Meadows tells an episodic tale, an abbreviated odyssey across the placid waters and otherworldly salt islands of Lake Urmia -- the location is unnamed, and the setting is employed in service of a fabulistic narrative. Rahmat, a professional collector of tears, makes his way from one isolate community to the next. Attending on grief of myriad shades, he raises a small glass vial to the cheeks of the bereaved. The derivative he transfers to a large stoppered bottle, slowly filling with liquid sorrow. Its purpose, and thus that of Rahmat's vocation, are unknown.

This protagonist is played by Hasan Pourshirazi. Though the character is rarely out of view for more than half a minute, he does not have a large amount of dialogue. The actor is so richly expressive, and so subtle, it is easy to imagine Rasoulof -- who wrote, directed, and produced -- discarding half of Rahmat's lines as superfluous. The film as a whole seems to have been purified in such a manner: though the story overflows with absurdities, there is not one implausible action.

In Pourshirazi's portrayal, there is a deep tenderness to the lead character -- inherent in his duties, yes, but amplified by the precision with which they are carried out. This is a necessary blessing, because the story is filled with agony. Rahmat, it seems, is the rare visitor to these allegorical isles. Though little links them materially except a ewer of tears, their pocket societies share one big thing: they are all insanely cruel.

Not to their common stock, no. But others are in mortal peril: the dwarf, the gorgeous virgin, the visionary painter. The story includes one act of classic heroism. It occurs offscreen, and the perpetrator is brutalized. In a film filled with achievements, here is Rasoulof's greatest: even as the film excoriates the ritual, habitual victimization of the other, he never portrays the executors of evil as other to ourselves. No excuses are conjured, no allowances made. Inhumanity -- however conventional, however traditional -- is sin. And yet, the film allows no easy rejection of the sinners.

How does Rasoulof achieve this? As also evident in his 2005 film Jazireh Ahani (Iron Island), he has a commanding talent for translating the physical presence, the weight and tangibility of things, of people's bodies, onto the cinema's flat screen. This fundamental virtue in a filmmaker, one ever rarer in the West, makes the notion of 3D redundant. Coupled with his devotion to the specificity of faces and gazes, he can accord the worst wrongdoers an inviolate humanity without resorting to gambits of sympathy (he was beaten as a child!), displacement (the system made him do it!), or show (he's bad but just so cool!)

Rasoulof's narrative at its harshest also embodies a revelatory compassion. When the system is senseless, it says, the warden is incarcerated; the master, invalid. A crazed creed is no excuse for the commission of evil, but it is a vehicle of gravest irony. When the faith is madness, it observes, the faithful are most surely punished.

Many modern works of art and entertainment flatter audiences for detecting potential evil within the good; many others -- and many of the same ones -- soothe by revealing good within the evil. The White Meadows delivers a more ancient, simple, and harder instruction: The evil are very, very much like us. And the evil are damned.

Rahmat's vocation is mysterious, but the practical aspect of its mysteries is not dwelt upon for most of the film. When the explanation appears, it comes as a shock. I found, an overwhelming one.

I telephoned my mother, the person most responsible for exciting my love of cinema, and as much as ordered her to see the picture. Afterward, we spoke again on the phone. She described the furious anger that consumed her when, at the end of the film, Rahmat comes face to face with the prime mover of his mission.

I appreciate her reaction. Having read the director's various remarks about the film -- which he indicates are subject to a degree of self-censorship -- I sense that it is one he intended to provoke. Aside from the fact that she was also overwhelmed, her reaction is quite different from my own. I wondered if her fifteen years of childhood tutelage by nuns of a traditionalist epoch, long disavowed, might have put her in touch with Rasoulof's driving sentiment in a way that my almost entirely secular life can not.

I was so unmoored by the story's climactic moments that I was still attempting to interpret them as the film moved on to a brief coda and then into its end credits. I had to ask my mother to describe the movie's final image. I had no memory of it, so preoccupied had I been with what came just before.

We had both seen the same thing: evil incarnate. But while its manifestation clarified her view, its nature raised a bewildering array of moral questions for me. In retrospect, I see they may all reflect this one question: How are we to judge those people and deeds customarily deemed good that sustain evil? Or, still more unsettlingly: Who are we? And yet judgment is the responsibility of those who would be free.

It is a valuable work that calls on its audience to brave such matters without the balm of resolution. And for such a work to be so transportingly beautiful and so immediately human -- this is a treasure.

Before each festival screening of the film, its audiences were informed of the recent history: Rasoulof's arrest in March among a party that included the picture's editor, director Jafar Panahi. Unlike Panahi, Rasoulof has been released from jail, but he is not allowed to leave the country. My mother exclaimed, amazedly, "He's out on bail?" Her point was clear: He made this film and he's not a national hero?

My mother was evidently in a state when she returned home from watching it. As she reported to me, her girlfriend asked her if she had found the picture depressing. My mother replied that she had not, but could not find the right word to describe the experience. Some time after we hung up the phone, I realized she had used the perfect word during our talk. The White Meadows is staggering.

The White Meadows plays at the Smithsonian's Museum of Asian Arts on Friday and Sunday. It will be screened at the MFA in Boston on January 29.

Dan Geist is a critic and senior editor at Tehran Bureau. Originally published on May 7, 2010.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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