Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue May 04, 2021 7:42 pm 
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A life in Iran told with reinvented photographs and dialogue

This is certainly an interesting and, for a non-Iranian, surprising family. Basically the older father of the filmmaker marries his younger wife from a distance, because, he says, he can't take the time away from his medical studies in Switzerland, where he's been for years training as a radiologist. The future mother's marriage ceremony is performed with a portrait photo standing in for the groom. The bride then comes from Iran to Geneva to live with her husband. He is liberal and secular and she is a hijab-wearing devout muslim. Maybe his commitment to liberalism wasn't 100%. Maybe he has a tendency for self-sabotage.

She is never happy with living in the secular, western environment, though she does apparently learn French, calls her husband "misyew," and for a while gives up the veil. After she gets pregnant and then suffers a severe back injury while skiing (to please her husband), she prevails upon him to return to Iran. (X-rays of the mother's damaged back further carry out the radiology theme.)

As little Firouzeh grows up, mom takes charge. She becomes a follower of a radical Islamist leader and this empowers her. When her husband asks to return to Switzerland because it's too dangerous in the chaos of revolutionary Iran, mom refuses. She takes over the school teaching job of a teacher expelled by the Islamists, and is so successful she becomes the principal.

To fit revolutionary ideals, the spacious house is stripped of silver, glassware, paintings, and lampshades. We don't actually see this, of course. The filmmaker uses a big living room throughout like a stage set, moving things around in it to suggest how the family lifestyle changes. This is only one way the film is fanciful, not literal, in its presentation of information. But more of that later. It gets weirder. The house is used for religious banquets. Mother gets military training and goes off to the front during the Iraq-Iran war. She makes sure father silences his Bach (western classical music is not approved, never was, for her) and listens to it on headphones. Somehow they seem to remain in the same house. One day the father dies, in his last time still listening to Bach on his headphones.

In his Hollywood Reporter review, Stephen Dalton calls this a"stylized documentary," and "an elegantly composed mosaic of real events and artfully restaged memories." The trouble with this method, for me, is that after a while one doesn't know which photos are authentic and which ones are artfully faked. Is the elderly lady at the end, sitting in that symbolic room and frailly reciting with a Qur'an, the filmmaker's mother? There is no way of knowing. At that point it would hardly matter. She is used symbolically. Unlike factual documentaries of lives, this one does not interrogate living people or in any way allow them to speak for themselves. Firouzeh's mother and father speak almost entirely in invented dialogue read by actors.

Another problem is that there are never ages of people given or dates for events. By looking up on Google, I found out that the funeral in London of the Islamist revolutionary that the mother goes to by herself was in 1977, but we don't know how old Firouzeh was then. It would certainly have been nice to know how old the mother and father were when they married. Probably the disparity was dramatic and the mother was a teenager. More importantly one would like to learn a little more that's specific about events in Iran.

And finally, this film tells us almost nothing about the filmmaker growing up at the time when this story is happening. What did she feel? Apparently she sided with her father and was largely ignored by her mom. What kind of school did she go to? What was her life like? What were her sorrows and joys? Where does she live now and what is her life like today? It turns out all those stylishly recreated or invented films and snapshots leave big gaps in a story that remains very impressionistic. Perhaps this reflects Firouzeh's remoteness from both parents, growing up.

In contrast one thinks of Persepolis, the four-volume series of bandes dessinées (French comics) published 2000-2004 by Marjane Satrapi and the lively film version (NYFF 2007) made in collaboration with Vincent Paronnaud with the voices of Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, and Danielle Darrieux for the main women. Satrapi lived through the Iranian revolution and left Iran for good, for France, in 1994, at twenty-four. Her focus is on her own constantly changing ideas growing up, spurred by the waves of Islamism and a Marxist-Leninist uncle. She is lively and outspoken, goes to French school in Vienna for a while, has sex and experiences the double lives the bourgeois Iranians were living. There is more about external events and when things are happening. Firouzeh's film weaves its own magic, I suppose, but it leaves me feeling hungry and makes me feel uncomfortable, even depressed. Persepolis is meatier stuff. It's fanciful too - it's a graphic novel, after all - but you feel the presence of real people.

Radiograph of a Family, 82 mins., debuted at Amsterdam Nov. 2020 (two awards) and has been included in over a dozen other international festivals including Goteborg, Sofia, Hon Kong and Jeonju. Screened at home for this review as part of the MoMA/Film at Lincoln Center series New Directors/New Films (Apr. 28-May 8, 2021).

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