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Film Review: Iranian Underground Narrative Cinema

The Gene Siskel Film Center’s ‘35th Annual Festival of Films from Iran’

By Arts & Culture

‘The Cow’ (1969)

Four months following the untimely assassination of the internationally renowned Iranian film director Dariush Mehrjui, on February 1, the Gene Siskel Film Center’s “Annual Festival of Films from Iran” began its annual run by presenting Mehrjui’s captivating piece “The Cow” (1969). The film — as tragic as Mehrjui’s death — vividly portrays the existential odyssey of a peasant grappling with the loss of his bovine companion while undergoing a psychological transmutation from the human to the animal realm, where his old friends also treat him as a cow.

The film deftly raises poignant existential queries that reminisces with Franz Kafka’s literary masterpiece “The Metamorphosis” (1915). Much like the novel, the film prompts us to ponder the essence of our existence. Its screening was a testament to the director’s artistic prowess and contributions to Iranian film history.

Mehrjui’s demise in a nation marked by a historical backdrop of targeted violence against the intellectual and artistic elite sparked considerable social discourse. The discovery of his mutilated remains catalyzed conversations surrounding the perceived censorship and alteration of his movies at the hands of state authorities over several decades, despite detectives’ investigations concluding that the murderer harbored personal hostility towards the filmmaker.

“Our films are the best examples of functioning under pressure. An artist working under the scrutiny of authorities in difficult conditions, enduring all-encompassing pressures, suppression, and severe censorship, is inevitably forced to compromise and adjust themselves to escape from this oppressive censorship and move forward.” Mehrjui stated in an interview published (translated by the writer) mere months prior to his passing.

“Perhaps my cinematic portfolio would be entirely different now if such conditions did not exist. I constantly ponder that the finest ideas that come to mind, the ones that excite me the most, suddenly collide with the imagination of a censor sitting there, wanting to reject the work or delete parts of it.”

‘Endless Borders’ (2023)

In recent years, censorship in Iran has escalated significantly and forced filmmakers to work clandestinely, akin to underground artists. Within the younger cohort, numerous directors opt to produce films privately, bypassing state authority’s official sanctions and submitting their works to international film festivals and events. Consequently, within the framework of the annual festival showcasing Iranian cinema in Gene Siskel, numerous underground films were presented despite not being exhibited within Iran. Among them, “Terrestrial Versus” (2023) by Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatami and “Endless Borders” (2023) by Abbas Amini serve as illustrative cases.

‘Terrestrial Verses’ (2023)

“Terrestrial Verses” presents a series of darkly comic vignettes that provide a glimpse into the everyday lives of ordinary Iranians. Through these vignettes, the audience is invited to observe how the Iranian populace battles with the various social, cultural, and religious bureaucracies imposed upon them by their government. The work is a testament to the resilience of its characters in the face of such challenges that allude to the existence of evident and palpable strains between the governing authorities and general populace. The underlying implication is that a gap between the two entities exists, characterized by a lack of mutual understanding, trust, and cooperation.

“Terrestrial Versus” represents a significant turning point in the trajectory of Iranian cinema, which has been profoundly influenced in the past decade by the captivating dramatic films of the two-time Oscar-winner director Asghar Farhadi. Farhadi’s works have exhibited the intricate circumstances of Iranian social contexts, where individuals are entangled with ethical responsibilities to different classes, genders, and generations. Such elaborate social networks, which delve into the profound fabric of human beings and resonate with international audiences on emotional levels, are supplanted with a simple ambivalence in the film in question.

This shift in narrative direction indicates a more significant trend within Iranian cinema, where filmmakers use cinematic arts to openly criticize the government despite being at risk of detainment and banishment. In the same vein, “Endless Borders” by Abbas Amini reveals political and cultural activists’ endeavors to survive in a situation where a lack of political freedom is undeniable. However, “Endless Borders” emphasizes the complicated circumstances of human beings beyond a political single-layered conflict between Iran’s society and government, and it elaborates on contradictory emotions and tension of its character on personal and social levels.

The passing of Mehrjui has left a profound impact on cinephiles across the nation. The memories of his films have been etched deep in their hearts, which serve as a reminder of his contributions to the cultural landscape. In a country where cinema has a long-standing history of excellence, young filmmakers are driven to create works with a social impact similar to Mehrjui’s iconic film, “The Cow.”

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