Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 18, 2019 9:54 pm 
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All the lonely people

The three characters who wend their slow way through Ali Jaberansari's Tehran: City of Love are disenchanted and gloomy and glum, and their sad-sack aspirations are low. They interconnect with each other minimally. Hessam Fezli (Amir Hessam Bakhtiari) is a lonely champion body builder of a certain age. He won three championships. He works in a gym, physical trainer for ordinary guys and old men. He gets hired for a film which, teasingly, has something to do with Louis Garrel, but not really. The actual shoot is some time in the future.

Then a handsome young bodybuilder, disenchanted with his previous trainer, takes on Hessam tentatively to train him for a competition. It is obvious this is a dream for the perhaps repressed Hessam, who isn't interested in women. We know that because he gives the brush off to Mina Shams (Forough Ghajabagli), the overweight receptionist at a beauty studio where he goes to get botoxed. When the body builder seems contented with Hessam, Hessam goes and resigns from the film, breaking his contract, to devote himself wholeheartedly to the young man.

Mina has a second cell phone she uses to make suggestive calls to men, and she sets up dates using fake pictures of young babes, but it's just a silly, unhealthy game, born of hopelessness. Then she goes to a life class proposed to her by Niloufar (Behnaz Jafari). There Reza, already a student in the class, takes an interest in Mina, inviting her out, not caring that she's overweight and sharing her taste for ice cream. (She doesn't quite give up her unhealthy phone games, though.)

Through Niloufar, Vahid (Mehdi Saki), attached to a mosque, working as a singer at funerals, gets to try a gig at a wedding, which is where she works. He gives it a try, but then through a keyboard player (if I understood this development) he gets in trouble for performing at an "unapproved activity," a joyous event that is not permitted by Iran's strict religious government. The mosque official takes him back, disapprovingly. He admits that loss of the wedding gig doesn't really matter, though he did seem to like being a happy instead of a sad performer for a while. All he really wanted, though, he tells Niloufar, was the opportunity to see her. Unfortunately, as Niloufar has already told Mina (they're chums), her lawyer has finally gotten her a visa, and she is soon going to be leaving for Australia.

As for Mina, on one of their dates, Reza reveals that he is married with a young kid. He's getting divorced, but it "is taking such a long time." So he's not really as available as he had let her assume for a while. She orders a double deluxe ice cream; this time he abstains. Later, Reza sends Mina a giant teddy bear at work as a consolation prize.

Poor, glum Hessam Fezli. Even when he's standing behind his handsome young body builder, guiding his arms in a hard workout, he never cracks a smile. Mina does smile and looks pretty when she's with Reza, and Vahid gets lively when he's performing at the parties. Maybe the young aspiring champion body builder feels uneasy with Hessam's attentions, especially after he's invited to Hessam's father's house. (Both Hessam and Vahid seem to live with their fathers.) The young body builder tells Hessam a lie to get out of their relationship, claiming that his travel schedule for work just doesn't allow him time to train and he must give up the idea of the competition (which isn't true).

So Hessam, Mina, and Vahid wind up more or less back where they started. Director Jaberansari finds his perfect final image in Mina with the giant teddy bear, Vahid, and Hessam, all sitting far apart, alone together, on an empty bus riding home.

This does seem a far cry from most other Iranian directors. Jaberansari, whose second feature this is, comes across here as an urban miniaturist, signaled by his ironic reference to Tehran in the title, by the tripartite structure, and by the reduced expectations. One might think of Aki Kaurismäki, or of Roy Anderssen, but with most of the whimsy and surrealism edited out. There is control here, and the film held my attention tight all the way through, while keeping my expectations to a minimum. The hopelessness and loneliness of some urban lives is painted here with painful precision. It seems to fit modern Iranian urban culture, with its intense restrictions on fun. Glum is in. How do you find your way around it?

Tehran: City of Love, 102 mins. debuted at London Oct. 2018, and played in at least ten other international festivals since, including the San Francisco Film Festival, where it was screened for this review.

SFFILM showtimes:
Tue, Apr 16 at 6:00 pm - Roxie Theater
Wed, Apr 17 at 9:15 pm - SFMOMA Phyllis Wattis Theater
Thu, Apr 18 at 6:00 pm - Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive


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