Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 21, 2022 2:07 pm 
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Jafar's son's debut is a miraculous road trip of indefinably complex mood

The Kid (Rayan Sarlak), a mop-headed, round-faced boy of six, is the one actor of the four who makes this road movie most unique and memorable; it's hard to imagine it without him. Tirelessly squealing, yelling, lip-synching, belly-dancing, squirming, protesting, bowing down to kiss the ground to give thanks, this special Middle Eastern version of a hyperactive boy is both a continual annoyance and a continual delight. In his innocence and exuberance he is ballast against a hovering sadness and unease that otherwise might overwhelm and tells us that mood is not the final one, that there is a spirit here that cannot be defeated.

This is the debut feature of Panah Panahi, the son of the famous Iranian director Jafar Panahi, known for The Circle, Offside, Taxi, and other acclaimed films, and he is good too, beyond good, and no clone of his father. There is a nod to the late master of both father and son, the great Abbas Kiarostami, who liked shooting films inside cars. Over all hangs the shadow of Iran's repressive, ultra-religious regime.

And the special mood of Hit the Road, which is hard to define, reflects that shadow. This is a family of four. In the back with the Kid is Khosro (Hasan Majuni), the father, a big, bearded, slightly blowsy man with one leg in a cast, and crutches, who affectionately abuses the two sons, calling them Monkey No. 1 and Monkey No. 2, or Shithead. The elder brother, Farid (Amin Simiar), is twenty, and the driver. Next to him is the wife and mother (Pantea Panahiha), an elegant, beautiful gray-haired woman who seems too glamorous and too sad to be a mother, but who is often laughing and joyously lip-synching to hide her tears.

Why the tears? Well, that is what we gradually find out, and it reflects back on that shadow I mentioned. There is also Jessy, the little dog, who is sick and dying, though that doesn't stop him from dragging a plastic chair a long way down a country road when he is tied to it. The Kid must not know Jessy is dying and must not know where his older brother is going.

Another character is the landscape of northwestern Iran, hilly and lunar sometimes, flat-out vast and beautiful at others. The title of the film in the original Farsi means "Dirt Road," and eventually they are on dirt roads, going toward a designated meeting with mysterious hooded figures on scooters who will ask if one of them is "a Traveler." Then a series of arcane arrangements will be made, and after a period in limbo, there will be a sad goodbye.

Hit the Road's special mood is set by the sadness of this essential goodbye and the effort to divert or downplay it, and in this mood an essential role is played by the music that comes in over the radio or on tapes in this car that is borrowed because mom has sold hers as they have sold their house (what will they do now? that is one of the mysteries of the film). First there is the fragment of the adagio from a Bach keyboard concerto the Kid plays along with on one hand on a small keyboard drawn with a marking pen on his father's cast. (This Kid is as brilliant as he is, in his dad's word, "wacko.") Then there is the sad strain of a Schubert piano sonata, parts of which briefly come and go throughout. But also, pulling in another important direction, there are touching, rousing, melodramatic old Iranian pop songs mom loves to lip sync to (but the Kid is the best lip-syncher of all). Farid balks at the melodrama. It's he who's barely holding it together.

In Screen Daily Wendy Ide described this film as "riotously funny at times and quietly devastating at others," and this is true. But there's really a whole spectrum of moods from one of these extremes to the other continually hovering, defined by the very clear and always overlapping personalities of the four in the car, with the Kid setting a top note of crazy, erratic, bratty joy.

Hit the Road is composed of many small, utterly original details one could never adequately pin down in a short review. Some viewers, not yielding to the mood, will see too little happening here. But you want to say, See it: if you like it at all, you'll probably love it.

When the penultimate phase comes of the arrangement and the departure of one of them, what has been so in-your-face and intimate draws away for a time and becomes spots on the horizon, and this is where, if you don't have the advantage of it, you'd most wish to be in front of the big screen. This is a film to savor and an instant classic, with this huge, small film, setting son Panah up with father Jafar Panahi quite likely to take his place among Iran's great directors.

Hit the Road (Jaddeh khaki/جادة خاكي /"Dirt Road"), 93 mins., debuted at Cannes Directors' Fortnight Jul. 10, 2021, showing at thirty other international festivals. Best Film at London, Mar del Plata, Singapore, numerous nominations. US theatrical release Apr. 22, 2022, New York (Film Forum); in Los Angeles, Apr. 29 or May 6, 2022. Metacritic rating: 91% (12 reviews). April 30, 2022: the San Francisco festival (SFIFF) has announced its top prize, the New Directors Award, for Panah Panahi's Hit the Road.






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