As you’ve surely noticed throughout our coverage of Close-Up, film culture in Iran is deep and highly connected. Many of the country’s top filmmakers have become co-collaborators, writing, starring, or producing one another’s work. Heavily focusing on the problems of contemporary Iranian citizens, these films capture struggle [whether personal or political] with beautiful humanism. This community has spawned a number of cinema’s best storytellers working in recent years, including the recently lost Abbas Kiarostami, and current kings of international cinema Asghar Farhadi and Jafar Panahi. Thankfully, there are many wonderful options of recent Iranian films from these filmmakers available on streaming. The list of eight below ranges from a recent horror entry to a marriage drama masterpiece, with many connections among them.
Streaming on Netflix:
Under the Shadow [Babak Anvari, 2016]
As you read through this list, you’ll notice a fair amount of consistency in the type of stories coming from Iran—Under the Shadow is definitely an exception, at least on the surface. In a film movement without a lot of genre fare, Under the Shadow is a slick horror film full of the country’s folklore and societal tensions. After its debut last year it received comparisons to The Babadook, which is fair given its narrative set-up: a woman and her young child [in this case a daughter] are tormented by an unrelenting supernatural force as the characters’ psychological stability begins to crack. What sets Under the Shadow apart, though, is its very specific setting. Taking place during the Iran-Iraq conflict adds both narrative stakes and the proper tension—the bombings provide an interesting backdrop and keep the family’s patriarch out of the picture in a clever way. Strictly as a horror film, Under the Shadow isn’t going to scare you with the best of them, but its cultural contexts give it a unique take. It is always a little trite to say that the monsters aren’t the real monsters, but it works here, with the framing of a vulnerable woman in Iranian society becoming the film’s real drive. This is an incredibly rich debut feature and Anvari has a lot of promise to holding the mantle for the next generation of Iranian filmmakers, even if he works exclusively within genre.
The President [Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 2014]
As you undoubtedly know as long as you’ve been paying attention, Makhmalbaf is one of Iran’s most important filmmakers and [along with Kiarostami and others] shepherded the Iranian film industry into the international market we see today. His most recent film, The President, isn’t where you’d want to start with Makhmalbaf, but it is an interestingly designed and politically relevant film worth watching. Unlike all the other films on this list, The President doesn’t take place in a contemporary Iran but a fictional country, though its themes certainly resonate. The film’s narrative follows a brutal dictator forced to lay low after a violent uprising aimed to remove his power. After his escape plan is botched, he ends up in the countryside with his young grandson. The President’s most admirable trait is its balance in humanizing its subject—we don’t see any of his supposed atrocities, so that helps, but the film builds on small character moments while keeping an air of tension around him. Georgian [that’s the country] actor Mikheil Gomiashvili is perfectly cast with an austere look and temperament that establishes everything you need to know without excessive backstory or exposition. Centering the typical humanist Iranian film on a human monster is bold and complicated and The President pulls it off well.
Streaming on Amazon Prime:
Ten [Abbas Kiarostami, 2002]
Made 12 years after Close-Up, Kiarostami showed he still had a great interest in telling personal stories of everyday Iranians while blending the lines of fact and fiction. Ten is a collection of ten conversations all filmed with a digital camera attached to the dashboard of a car—incredibly similar to the visual and storytelling styles of our Related Review this week, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi [and more on him later, too]. Here, though, Kiarostami focuses sharply on women’s stories, primarily of the car’s driver, played by Mania Akbari. We see her interact with her rebellious young son [played by her real-life son] as they argue about her divorce and his freedom; she talks with an unseen prostitute about her work and the importance of sex in a modern woman’s life; more emotional conversations take place with the driver’s sister and a young bride. This may sound like a stodgy premise, but the short dialogues are incredibly stimulating, full of passion and illuminating social discourse. The static, low-resolution camera leaves some visual aesthetic to be desired, but it does create a much-needed intimacy with its characters. It is fascinating how Kiarostami builds the world through truthfulness, and with such ease considering the narrative and visual constraints placed on Ten. He was truly one of the great real-world storytellers of his generation.
The Fish Fall in Love [Ali Rafie, 2006]
Coincidentally and without realizing it, a few days before watching The Fish Fall in Love, I saw its director in a major supporting role in Agnès Varda’s 1977 film One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, as the Iranian husband of the main character. While Ali Rafie doesn’t have the resume of the top filmmakers on this list [he only directed two films], hanging around Varda gets you some definite street cred. Honestly, if you’re using this list as some sort of primer on Iranian cinema, The Fish Fall in Love doesn’t need to be a priority, but it is a nice little family-centered melodrama. It follows the relationships of four women who run a small restaurant and an older man who suddenly comes into their lives. And as a food movie, it is full of wonderful traditional cooking that complements the film’s slow pace and small character moments—the best scenes of the film are the ones where the characters talk over their pots or plates, enjoying the company. As an added benefit, The Fish Fall in Love features an early performance from Golshifteh Farahani, recently of Paterson, who plays the daughter of the restaurant owner and something of the film’s romantic muse.
Streaming on Fandor:
Closed Curtain [Jafar Panahi & Kambuzia Partovi, 2013]
After being banned from making movies by the Iranian government in 2010, Jafar Panahi has gone on to make three films, including Closed Curtain with his longtime collaborator Kambuzia Partovi. Like Close-Up and Panahi’s most recent work, Closed Curtain is a blend of documentary and narrative filmmaking, following Partovi as a version of himself holed up in a secluded seaside house. This is a bit more overtly fiction than This Is Not a Film or Taxi, with elements of a thriller—after an extended introduction that silently explores our main character and his environment, a young woman bursts into his life, making him vulnerable to the outside world. Like all of his work, though, Panahi challenges modern Iran by tackling big social questions and using interesting structural themes to comment on his filmmaking ban. The result is among Panahi’s most entertaining films, even if it isn’t his most political or vital work. After checking out Closed Curtain, you can follow up with another of Panahi’s great recent films, as the incredibly defiant look at everyday society Taxi is now streaming on Netflix.
Leila [Dariush Mehrjui, 1997]
Director Mehrjui is probably best known for making Iranian New Wave film The Cow in 1969 [you'll recall from our In Context piece the importance of that film], but Leila is a nice predecessor to the modern social dramas that are coming out of the country. Asghar Farhadi, who I’ll get to later, was no doubt inspired by Leila, a great portrait of a marriage where each party deal with a difficult problem realistically and without excessive over-dramatization. The film stars Farhadi veterans Leila Hatami [A Separation] and Ali Mosaffa [The Past] as a married couple who come against turmoil when they realize the title character is unable to have kids. This problem is brilliantly played off a narrative structure full of family gatherings—the film has such a strong sense of community that it completely colors the way you read the quiet scenes between Hatami and Mosaffa. If you hate your parents not-so-subtly dropping questions about when they’ll be grandparents, Leila might come off as a horror film for you.
Streaming on FilmStruck:
Children of Heaven [Majid Majidi, 1997]
The first film from Iran I ever saw, Children of Heaven made a lasting impression. The film wonderfully captures the neorealist dramatic style but with a little more heart than the usual downers. This is all because of the narrative construction, as we see Children of Heaven through the naive eyes of children, brother and sister Ali and Zahra. The main plotline is definitely something out of Italian films from the 40s and 50s, as Ali loses his sister’s new shoes [the importance of which provide a simple symbol of their poverty] and he is bent on finding them. Like many Iranian films of the time, Children of Heaven explores really complex themes of poverty, family, and society through a simple plot and with children, which allowed filmmakers to challenge the strict production codes through seemingly sweet drama. This balance is difficult to pull off without either feeling melodramatic or losing a thematic edge—for any film that tries to be a heartwarming look at poverty, but Iranian films have the more difficult pressures of social critique. Children of Heaven is the prime example of a devastating story told with wonder.
A Separation [Asghar Farhadi, 2011]
The international breakout of Iran’s premiere filmmaker, A Separation won the Oscar for foreign language films—the first win for the country in only its second nomination [Children of Heaven was the first]. The film takes an intimate look at a middle class family through multiple dramatic conflicts. The first comes from the title: the separation of Simin and Nader following a dispute about leaving Iran. Their teenaged daughter takes this particularly hard, providing the emotional center for the characters. But as they are drifting apart, Simin and Nader must come together following a tragic incident between Nader’s elderly father and a woman they hired as his caretaker. The dramatic depths and cultural context of A Separation are extremely complex, giving the film a touch of a thriller’s pace despite the family drama setup. Its themes of modern marriage in Iran are morally and psychologically complicated, never allowing the viewer to take a side in the conflict. If you’ve never seen A Separation, I don’t know what has stopped you—it is simply one of the best films to come out this decade. If you are interested in Farhadi’s most recent Oscar winner, the similarly complex and thrilling The Salesman, it should be popping up on Amazon Prime sometime this summer.