Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 17, 2010 3:19 pm 
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The seamy side of the Iranian capitol

In Tehroun (the name is just a local vernacular way of saying "Tehran") a woman who poses as a student for purposes of daytime prostitution tries to sell a small child that has been rented out for begging. Nearly everyone in this movie is desperate and using some scam to get by. A small gang of outlaws a man joins to pay an extortionist when the child is stolen poses as religious police to rob rich party people; and, uniformed as cops, stops cars on the highway uniformed as cops to take the occupants' jewelry. But for revenge, the rich victims run over and kill one of the bandits. An innocent wife, pregnant, takes to drug smuggling on her own to help out when she learns her husband is in a financial fix with a gangster. In the end, it's hard to tell if this is a movie about the moral depravity of contemporary Iran -- or the degenerative effect of the country's huge capital city -- or an indictment of the regime, for driving citizens to extreme survival strategies. Whether there are any heroes here or only villains is uncertain. One thing is clear: that Tehroun, which was made on the sly, would not appeal to the mullahs. A French poster calls this "A film noir, Iranian style: a little revolution," and in the course of developing its "polar" (crime story) plot, if that's what it is, Homayroun certainly gets away from the continually weepy and tendentious manner of Iranian cinema (as has Jafar Panahi) and takes risks, but he has woven a tangled web whose ultimate point is moot.

As the film begins, Ibrahim (Ali Ebdali) has for some time been away from his provincial home and wife trying his luck in the capital. Having run low on money, he has rented a baby boy from a gangster to beg in the streets, wandering from car to car and later walking the sidewalk. He doesn't do badly. In the evening we see him sharing a room with a bunch of men, including a pal who drives a taxi. He has full-time custody of the kid and must feed him and buy salve for his gums because he's teething, and periodically has to go back and pay rental fees to the gangster. Trouble comes when one day the cab driver, who normally takes Ibrahim to his daily begging rounds, finds him a temp job gardening for a rich lady. Ibrahim must leave the kid with young roommate Madjid (Missagh Zareh), who takes the boy to a park where he's accosted by the fake student prostitute, Shirine (Shahrzad Kamal Zadeh) and can't resist her; apparently he's a virgin. When Madjid leaves the baby with Shirine to rent a hotel room she runs off with him. Meanwhile Ibrahim's wife, now pregnant, is coming to town. He has to stay with her in a cheap hotel to hide his actual circumstances.

Things get more and more complicated, and there are various stray plot developments. Ibrahim is assisting at the cabbie's Muslim wedding ceremony when the latter, comically, gets a phone call telling him the lost rental child has been found.

Hamayroun, whose first feature this is, keeps the action flowing, but doesn't develop character or suspense. One watches with curiosity more than emotional involvement. The theme of the gangster has much potential that is wasted. He appears kindly at one point, cruel at another. In a cruel phase he tortures Ibrahim by using a small crane to lower him head first into a pool. Later he is caught off-screen and exposed as a child trafficker, but by then has apparently been rubbed out -- by Ibrahim and friends, perhaps, we don't know.

The images are of poor quality, as murky as the characters' morals. Sometimes important plot twists are likewise unclear. While the early sequences of the lost child may bring to mind De Sica's Bicycle Thief, the ending in a huge bus station might evoke Clément's Forbidden Games -- except that it's used as the setting for final gratuitous plot twist. This is rich material -- perhaps too rich -- clumsily utilized, though the film has already won an audience award at Venice and may be welcomed by more admiring than critical fans of Iranian cinema. The screenplay was co-written with Mehdi Boustani and Jean-Philippe Gaud, who collaborated with Homayoun previously on a short.

An Iranian/French co-production scheduled for an April 14, 2010 release in France, Tehroun was included in the New Directors/New Films series in late March 2010 in New York with showings at the Walter Reade Theater of Lincoln Center and MoMA.


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