Box Office $0.17 million;
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Stars Jafar Panahi, Naser Hashemi, Bakhtiyar Panjeei, Mina Kavani, Reza Heidari, Naser Hashemi.
This may not be the best time in our history to tout an acutely cinematic Iranian drama — alternately uplifting and heart-rending, extremely personal and politically charged — that tells its story straightforwardly without deploying so much as one special effect. A hard sell? Bosh!
If, as Harvey Fierstein has suggested, “Art has the power to transform, to illuminate, to educate, inspire and motivate,” director Jafar Panahi’s No Bears arrives on the wings of reason looking to take up permanent residence in your heart, mind, and Blu-ray library.
Denying a director their right to film is tantamount to spiking a coloritura’s atomizer with turpentine or taking a sledgehammer to a sculptor’s ductile digits. Jafar Panahi was placed under house arrest and prohibited from making movies based on accusations of “colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” A 20-year ban that not only prohibited Panahi from making a movie and/or leaving the country was not enough to keep the director away from a camera. Stripped of equipment and financing, This is Not a Film, his first film made in confinement, was shot on home video equipment and a cell phone, and later smuggled out of the country on a thumb drive hidden in a cake. Panahi transformed his living room into a mini-backlot, staging scenes for a movie under construction that are more compelling than most finished features.
His next film, the surreal fever dream, Closed Curtain was set at the director’s beach house. It presents one of cinema’s greatest character introductions this side of Harry Lime. As noted in my review for the San Diego Reader, “Amid a mirrored crazy quilt of framed posters from movies past, the curtain lifts and Panahi appears suddenly and unexpectedly halfway through the film. His arrival is the most dazzling in-camera special effect of the year.” This was followed by Taxi, easily the director’s most accessible work to date and a perfect jumping off point for those not yet familiar with the man’s work. Restrictions were lifted that allowed Panahi to move more freely about Tehran. For the hardcore Panahists, the parting shot will no doubt leave even the most jaded among us sporting ear-to-ear grins. In 3 Lives, a young woman construes the rejection by a famous actress as an excuse to document her hanging. Apart from the convincing cellphone-suicide that opens the picture, this remains Panahi’s cheeriest, most upbeat film to date.
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No Bears, the fifth of the director’s so-called banned films, opens with an eight-minute take that is nothing short of a master class on finding the drama inherent in something as mundane as people walking down the street. While moving from the general to the specific, we wait and wonder which of the random characters we encounter will be the first to engage us. Bakhtiar (Bakhtiyar Panjeei) and Zara (Mina Kavani), an outcast couple looking to get out of Turkey, are one passport shy of the requisite pair of forged documents needed to make their escape. Their spell of romantic conflict is broken by a startling pullback that reveals Panahi, not in an editing suite or remote van, but in a hotel room watching a scene from his film-within-a-film play out to his exacting specifications.
Years spent in his jail have not only forced Panahi to explore different ways to spin a narrative, it’s made him a damn fine actor as well. In the films made while under preventive custody, the Panahi who greets us is quick to reveal a comedic side. A wavering Wi-Fi signal has the ever-calm director pacing the perimeter, a laptop in one hand, his phone pointed skyward in the other. Fully aware that concierge Ghanbar (Vahid Mobasseri) is on his way to a wedding doesn’t stop Panahi from taking advantage of the poor guy, going so far as to ask that he fetch a ladder to help end his quest for reception. Too busy to attend the wedding, Panahi arms Ghanbar with a camera and asks that he document it in the director’s absence. As an auteur, Ghanbar tends to press PLAY rather than STOP. Walking feet replace talking heads. And in those rare moments when the camera functions properly, Ghanbar’s hacky sack coverage could result in head trauma.
The subject matter and lighting begin to darken when assistant director Reza (Reza Heidari) makes a late night call. An offer to smuggle Panahi over the Turkish border meant a night on set with cast and crew and a guaranteed safe return the next morning. Through his actions, the director has made it clear that under no circumstance does he have any intention of filming outside of Iran. When his character is asked where the border is, Reza replies, “You’re standing on it.” Panahi’s conditioned instinct is to lurch backwards and head back to the hotel.
Gozal (Darya Alei) appears out of the blackness of night, bringing with her the film’s one major plot wrinkle. Not surprisingly, it’s in the form of an image. It’s a village custom that when a girl is born, her umbilical cord is cut in the name of her future husband, in this case a hothead lout named Jacob (Javad Siyahi). Gozal ignores the ancient superstition and, much to the humiliation of Jacob, falls in love with Solduz (Amir Davari). A photo of the duo canoodling under a walnut tree is said to have been taken by Panahi and the three villagers who show up to claim the snapshot are certain of its existence. We never learn if it was Panai’s lenswork or if a photograph even exists. It’s not important. His offer to turn over the memory card is not incentive enough. These boys won’t take yes for an answer. The villagers insist that a sworn oath be taken before their tribunal. A filmmaker to the end, Panahi does them one better by seeing to it that video copies of his oath are made available to everyone in attendance.
Both fictions end in tragic confusion, leaving spectators with scratched heads. I’ve watched it twice and will probably give it another look before the week’s end. A 20-minute presentation by filmmaker/Panahi acolyte Ramin Bahrani (Goodbye Solo, 99 Homes) offers a comprehensive career overview as well as much welcome insight into Pahani deceptively simple style of storytelling.