“Mourning” – 2012 San Diego Asian Film Festival Review

Amir Hossein Maleki is Arshia, a young boy searching for his parents, in Morteza Farshbaf’s “Mourning.” (photo courtesy of the San Diego Asian Film Festival)

“Mourning,” the remarkably accomplished debut feature by Iranian filmmaker Morteza Farshbaf, is a beautifully shot and perceptively written film that is as much about the interplay between the cinematic materials that went into its creation – photography, light and darkness, acting gestures, dialog, subtitles – as it is about the narrative itself. Farshbaf’s playful and astute approach to his craft, and his exploration into how the elements of movies create meaning and emotion, makes for a more fully immersive experience than many so-called three-dimensional films today can offer. On the evidence of “Mourning,” we may be looking at a very fascinating and fruitful career well worth following.

Now, let’s get the obvious things out of the way first. “Mourning” centers on the character of a young boy, features often stunning landscape shots of the Iranian countryside, and takes place mostly in and around the confines of moving vehicles. So of course, the influence of Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami is unmistakable. Not to mention the fact that Farshbaf expanded “Mourning” from an earlier short film titled “The Wind Blows Wherever It Wants,” and that both this short and his feature were developed through Kiarostami’s filmmaking workshops. Most reviewers made this a prominent feature of their discussion of this film; a critic from “Variety” referred to “Mourning” as “Kiarostami Lite” in his review. But dwelling on this anxiety-of-influence angle obscures two important points. First, Kiarostami himself doesn’t really make films like this anymore, and in fact hasn’t for a long time. As brilliant as his recent output has been – especially his last two features “Certified Copy” and “Like Someone in Love” – and as much as they retain many of Kiarostami’s signature stylistic elements, they are distinctly different in feeling from such earlier masterpieces as “Close-Up,” “Through the Olive Trees,” or “Taste of Cherry.” Second, and most important, Farshbaf has a distinctly different sensibility than his famous mentor, one more darkly sardonic and slyly comic. Though “Mourning” may start off coming across as an imitation of Kiarostami, by the time the film ends, we have been transported to another place stylistically and emotionally, one unmistakably Farshbaf’s own.

The first few minutes of “Mourning” are shrouded in complete darkness, as the voices of a man (Peyman Moaadi) and a woman (Sahar Dolatshahi) having a heated argument are heard. After the argument seemingly escalates to a near-violent pitch, the woman storms out, the man following her, to a car that speeds away. The lights of the car reveal a young boy in bed who has heard the argument. This boy is Arshia (Amir Hossein Maleki); the man and woman are his parents, who have seemingly abandoned him in the middle of the night.

The next scene is a curious one, which may have some theater viewers calling for the projectionist, believing that a technical error has occurred. Over an extreme long shot of a car traveling on a road over a hilly landscape of green pasture, we see subtitles on the screen indicating a conversation between a man and a woman that seems to concern Arshia. We quickly infer that Arshia and the two adults are traveling in this car that exists as a tiny moving spot within a vast terrain. However, we don’t hear any voices, only the ambient sounds of the outdoors. After some minutes of this, the next shot reveals an explanation for the silent subtitles. The man and woman, Arshia’s uncle Kamran (Kiomars Giti) and aunt Sharareh (Sharareh Pasha), are both deaf and have been communicating with one another through sign language. Arshia’s parents have left their son with this couple, and all three are traveling toward Tehran to search for their whereabouts. On the car ride, Sharareh and Kamran argue with each other over the circumstance they find themselves in, what may have caused Arshia’s parents to fight and why they left so suddenly without taking their son, as well as their own relationship issues. Arshia sits in the back seat as a silent observer of the increasingly portentous drama in the front seat, interrupted only by Sharareh periodically asking how Arshia is doing. Some of the sly humor of the film comes through in these long scenes of driving.  A running gag concerns Arshia’s frequent stops to pee, which Kamran says always seem to occur whenever a tree appears during their travels.

I am loath to reveal much more of the narrative than this, since one of the great joys of “Mourning,” as well as a demonstration of Farshbaf’s skillfulness in story construction, is how subtly, patiently and free of bathetic melodrama the details of the plot unfold. Suffice it to say that a tragedy occurs off-screen that Sharareh and Kamran strive to conceal from Arshia, and that their subterfuge reveals serious fissures in their marriage that begin to transform how they see each other, as well as their relationship to Arshia. Arshia is confined in close proximity to his aunt and uncle’s incessant bickering, and the only respite comes when they encounter kindly strangers who help them when the car breaks down along the route. Farshbaf’s gift for conveying full lives during the brief appearances of minor characters comes through wonderfully in those scenes. More facets of Arshia’s character are revealed through his interactions with these strangers, who seem to be much more pleasant company than his own family.

All of this culminates in a denouement that at first blush seems teasingly, even frustratingly, opaque and ambiguous. However, on further reflection, it becomes clearer that “Mourning” ends on a decisive act on Arshia’s part, to wrest control of his own life and destiny from the dysfunctional adults who surround him. The film’s title ultimately refers not only the normal sense of eulogizing deceased loved ones, but also the end of childhood, and the beginning of a nascent, anxious, and uncertain adulthood, one that comes for Arshia much sooner than it should.

“Mourning” is a brilliantly conceived and splendidly designed film that reaffirms the fact that Iran, a country often caricatured in U.S. media as a scary nation with nuclear ambitions full of fundamentalist crazies who hate America, is the source of some of world cinema’s most humanistic, emotionally affecting, and philosophically profound works. As much as many craven and cynical politicians (including a certain man running for President of the United States) seek to strike fear in the hearts of the public to gain support for ill-advised military action against Iran, the fact is that many Iranians themselves, especially artists and activists, have much more to fear from Iran’s government than any American living here probably ever will. Numerous filmmakers have been imprisoned and prevented from working in Iran, the most prominent being Jafar Panahi (“The White Balloon,” “The Circle,” “This is Not a Film.”). Even the globally acclaimed Kiarostami has become essentially an artistic exile – his last two features were made in Italy and Japan – because he feels that Iran’s current political climate has made it impossible for him to make his films the way he wants. Earlier this year, the Iranian government shut down Tehran’s House of Cinema, an institution that supported Iranian films and filmmakers, making it very difficult for directors, especially independents, to get their projects made in the country. Add to this the stringent censorship under which all Iranian films must submit, and it becomes a minor miracle that any films are able to get made in Iran at all.

I’m usually not one for direct advocacy in my reviews, but I’ll make an exception in this case. If “Mourning” comes to your local film festival or movie theater, I urge you to give it a look. It is by a filmmaker of consummate talent and undeniably confident skill, and well deserving of the accolades it has so far received, including the New Currents Award at the 2011 Busan International Film Festival. Iran is sitting out the foreign film Oscar race this year, following last year’s win for Asghar Farhadi’s extraordinary “A Separation” – Iran’s first-ever victory in this category – over the Academy’s supposed failure to sufficiently come out against the viral anti-Islam video “Innocence of Muslims.” This is quite a shame, since under different circumstances “Mourning” may very well have been this year’s nominee from Iran. With its rich mixture of comic and poignant moods, the fine performances by its non-professional cast, and its director’s mastery of the tools of cinema, “Mourning” is more than worthy of the attention an Oscar nomination would have given this film. Hopefully with time, “Mourning” – which as of this writing has yet to be approved for release in its home country – will eventually make its way to the sizable audience it so richly deserves.

“Mourning” screened at the 2012 San Diego Asian Film Festival, for which Meniscus Magazine served as a proud sponsor.

Trailer: “Mourning”

MOURNING (Soog) from The Global Film Initiative on Vimeo.