Still from The Cow (Dariush Mehrjui, 1969), Source: Fandor

A Beginner’s Guide to Farsi Cinema: Iran in Focus

by Marisa Sittheeamorn, Kaveh Daneshmand

Have you ever found yourself scrolling endlessly through online film databases, trying to find something new and exciting to watch? With never-ending technological advances, a variety of cinemas are becoming increasingly easy to access. While many audiences have embraced the worldly breadth of these new selections, navigating new film industries can be intimidating to many.

Serving as a bridge to connect the Farsi film industry with audiences around the globe, Farsi Cinema Center has put together a beginners guide for those eager to explore what Farsi cinema has to offer. The list of quality films coming out of the region is endless, and for those unaware of where to begin, delving into Farsi cinema has the potential to be overwhelming.

In the first edition of our three part series, we place a spotlight on some of the most culturally significant, and industry-forming films from Iranian history. As one of the most active film industries in the world, Iranian cinema is best known for its visual and narrative art house characteristics that demand an awareness from its audiences. The films on our list have all transcended the tests of time, each informing the approach of future filmmakers to come. Recommended by our very own Iranian team members, these films are widely available online or on DVD with subtitles for non-Farsi natives. Keep an eye out for future editions on Afghan and Tajik titles. We hope you enjoy these as much as we do.

The House is Black (Farrokhzad, 1962), Source: Taste of Cinema

1. The House is Black, Forough Farrokhzad (1962)

Created by Forough Farrokhzad, The House Is Black is a critically acclaimed short documentary about a leper colony where she lived for twelve days. Though the documentary was her only film, it continues to be thought of as one of the most arresting films in the history of contemporary cinema. Considered an inspiration to new wave filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami, the film, “combined her fascination with beauty and truth [more] than anything else she ever did.” Farrokhzad remains an icon of artistic, personal, and sexual freedom to many Iranians today.

2. Brick & Mirror, Ebrahim Golestan (1964)

Released in 1964, Ebrahim Golestan’s Brick and Mirror is a drama that follows the story of a taxi driver (Hashem) who finds an infant in the back of his car one night after dropping off a young woman. Hashem and his girlfriend (Taji) have opposing views on how to cope with the unwanted child. Golestan was one of the first internationally-celebrated filmmakers in Iran, and was well-known for his controversial affair with contemporary artist Forough Farrokhzad who tragically passed away in a car accident at the age of 32. The two inspired each other to create more freely.

“The Cow, by Dariush Mehjuri, was smuggled out of Iran where it won the critics’ prize at the 1971 Venice Film Festival” Source: BBC, Photo: Alamy

3. Tranquility in the Presence of Others, Naser Taghvai (1972)

Considered one of the best new wave films, Tranquility in the Presence of Others follows the miserable and melancholic life of a retired colonel. Coming from a rural village, the colonel moves to the city with his daughters, but finds it hard to adjust to a more modern lifestyle. The film was banned in Iran, which scholars claim, caused an irreparable blow to the Iranian New Wave Cinema. It is argued that if the film had been screen immediately following production in 1971, Iranian cinema would have taken a different path. Regardless of its delayed release, the film was celebrated for demanding an awareness from the audience, challenging the mainstream formula of Iran’s commercial films.

4. The Cow, Dariush Mehrjui (1969)

In 1971, Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow, was smuggled out of Iran and screened at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the critics prize. The film’s success along the international circuit sustained as it screened at Berlinale, and as critics continued to react with high praise. Taking a similar visual and narrative approach as Taghvai in Tranquility in the Presence of Others, the film tells the story of a villager (Hassan) and his humanizing relationship with his cow. Following his cow’s death, Hassan suffers an emotional breakdown and starts believing he is the cow. Film critic Hamidreza Sadr says, The Cow was “the first Iranian film to deal with the small-scale, the unredeemed, and the unheroic.” The film paved the way for cinema to communicate opposition, dissonance, and social critique in Iran.

Still from Downpour by Bahram Beizai (1972), Source: Mubi

5. Downpour, Bahram Beizai (1972)

Set in pre-revolutionary Iran, an educated teacher arrives in a new city and begins a new job. The teacher falls in love with a hardworking but struggling woman who is raising her younger brother and caring for her aging mother. Ultimately, the film examines how the effects of various social issues can hinder the ability to follow dreams and embrace love. The Crow is another favorite from Beezai, that we highly recommend.

6. A Simple Event, Sohrab Shahid Saless (1973)

A Simple Event is perhaps one of Sohrab Shahid Saless’ most remembered works. Achieving a documentary-like authenticity, the film examines the austere life of a struggling, isolated, impoverished, and helpless boy living in the northern coast of Iran with his sick mother and fish-smuggling father. Following the sudden death of the young boy’s mother, viewers automatically sympathize with living family members. However, the continuing mundane life of the boy and his father “remain vague and largely unresolved [by] this ‘Simple Event.’” Following A Simple Event, Shahid Saless’ became recognized for his distinctive style, creating simple, plotless films, that communicated authentic renderings of every-day, and often rural, life.

7. The Runner, Amir Naderi (1984)

The Runner was one of the first films following the Iranian revolution to receive global attention. The film is set in the aftermath of the war, and centers around the experience of an impoverished and illiterate young orphaned boy, Amiro. Through a harsh account of modern poverty, Amiro must rummage through garbage and peddle water to feed himself. In an attempt to stand up to the bigger boys that pick on him, Amiro learns to fight back: “He’s a runner, and he wants to run with the best of them.” In The Runner, Naderi introduced visual and narrative strategies that later became characterized as post revolutionary art house, appearing in the works of other acclaimed artists of the time. Another notable classic from Naderi is Water, Wind, and Dust.

Still from Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, Source: Aga Khan Museum

8. Taste of Cherry, Abbas Kiarostami (1997)

Taste of Cherry is one of Kiarostami’s many masterpieces. The minimalist drama tells the story of a middle-aged man, who drives through Tehran offering a large sum of money to someone that agrees to bury him after he commits suicide. With a famous ending that breaks the fourth wall, the film explores the fragile and precious nature of life. Kiarostami is remembered for his poetic and image-heavy explorations of life, death, and truth. Other notable films from him include The Report and Close-Up.

Still from Crimson Gold (Panahi, 2003), Source: Slant Magazine

9. Crimson Gold, Jafar Panahi (2003)

One of Panahi’s more explicitly socially-conscious films, Crimson Gold follows the story of a pizza deliveryman (Hussein) who ends his life after robbing a jewellery store. Motivated by the condescension he receives from workers and customers while trying to buy a ring for his finance, Hussein’s experiences are ultimately a portrayal of the oppression a man faces from his own people. The film is a subtle yet powerful film representing societal pressures associated with class and masculinity in Iran.

10. A Separation, Asghar Farhadi (2011)

In 2012, Asghar Farhadi became the first Iranian to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film with this film. Perhaps the most internationally recognized film on this list, A Separation is a drama centering around the dissolution of a marriage in contemporary Iran. The film is dynamically shot, combining characteristics from the thriller genre with artistic undertones of morally-sound guidance. According to a review in the New Republic, “The passion and texture of the film come from the idea that existence is already an ensemble, that lives are contingent on other lives, all the time.” The hype surrounding this film certainly exists for a reason.

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