Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Apr 01, 2006 2:44 pm 
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Rough parable of innocents and a crafty leader

Iron Island (Jezireh ahani 2005), the second film written and directed by Iranian Mohammad Rasoulof, is a loosely constructed parable. Rasoulof conceived his tale originally as a theater piece, then turned it into a film by adopting a derelict oil tanker in the Persian Gulf as the setting and populating it with non-actors, sunni ethnic Arab Bandaris, a marginal group in Iran. The resulting style is a cross between Makhmalbaf and post-war Italian neorealism. One might think of the rusty ship with its squatters as like the shantytown in De Sica and Zavattini’s Miracle in Milan, but things here are grimmer and more elemental.

Everything revolves around a kind of benevolent dictator, a “Captain” (well-known actor Ali Nasirian), who cuts deals, settles disputes, and gives out orders. The Captain’s full of friendly greetings for everybody but up close is an exploiter and not to be trusted. How all these people wound up here is a mystery but it provides Rasoulof with a readymade microcosm. The meanings are up to you.

There’s crude oil on the ship and a gang of boys the Captain keeps working for him carry it and carved off scrap iron and sell both to buyers on land. Later the boys find a TV and get it working but the Captain grabs it and throws it overboard in anger. There’s a teacher who teaches his charges to read using old newspapers and explains that the ship is in the sea and the sea is beautiful and is part of the world. Later when things get complicated because the Captain is going to give up the ship he removes the students and leaves the teacher to make chalk and give lessons to an empty classroom, and donkeys are stabled there instead.

There’s a special boy named Ahmad (Hossein Farzi-Zadeh) whom the Captain has adopted as his protégé but rather looks down on. The boy’s in love with a girl on board, but she’s to marry an older man the captain has arranged and he forbids Ahmad to go near her. But he cannot obey. Things are bartered and in one brief but highly charged scene Ahmad and the betrothed girl he fancies without seeing each other exchange clothing -- his T-shirt; her veil -- back and forth on a rope, as if they’re undressing for each other and also trading love tokens. When the wedding takes place, in his frustration Ahmad steals the Captain’s motorboat and escapes from the ship, but he’s caught and subjected to cruel water torture with the entire community watching on deck: now we know this dictator isn’t really so benevolent after all.

The Bardari women wear veils that look like Venetian carnival masks. There’s a dark, bright-eyed little boy people call Fish who rescues aquatic creatures who’ve slipped into the hold and takes them up and frees them. There’s an old man in shades who stands outside looking at the sun all day, awaiting a sign. There’s a handicapped boy whose daily assignment is to operate the mechanized lift that’s used to bring people up and down from the ship. He also gets to carry out the water torture -- because Ahmad, bound hand and foot, is lowered into the sea on the lift -- and he revels in it.

The teacher has been conducting a test that shows the ship is sinking. The captain rejects this assertion at first, but bowing to the inevitable in time gets everybody on board to sign over power of attorney to him, takes them on a “pilgrimage” to the desert, and sells the ship to businessmen for scrap. He promises the people will have a town that will be beautiful, but we don’t believe him. The last images are of Fish trying to save fishes along the shore – he has run away, but his project seems more futile than ever, though just as sweet.

Rasoulof’s narrative is rather haphazard. At times it seemed to me the relationships might have had more depth if the people were presented in an ordinary community, the boy’s longing for the betrothed girl, for instance, and the schoolteacher whose classroom is at the whim of a local mayor. What would have become of the boy freeing fishes and the old man staring at the sun in normal conditions I don’t know. The rusty ship may have struck the director as a wonderful idea but it turns out to be a bit of an albatross, a weighty but empty metaphor distracting us from more interesting human detail. But since this captain and his arbitrary world sticks in the mind, perhaps the whole thing wasn’t such a bad idea after all. The cinematography makes good use of the authentic faces and the natural, often very low light – contrasting with dazzling moments of sun. There are really three films here: one composed of of lovely images, another of rough parables, a third of social anecdotes.

J.Hoberman wondered in his review how this film was shown at home and what it would mean there. It was shown in the New Directors/New Films series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (March 2006) and then at Cinema Village, also in New York, but the film hasn't been screened in Iran yet, so those questions can't yet be answered.
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©Chris Knipp 2006


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