Iranian cinema is often listed by contemporary film scholars as some of the best cinema in the world. It has a case for this generation’s definitive non-American film movement – especially given the fact that many of the pioneering filmmakers were students of French New Wave cinema. Much like French New Wave – and the Italian neo-realism movement that inspired it – Iranian cinema tends to feature hyper-realistic depictions of day-to-day life in Iran with an art house twist.
Iranian cinema also has the larger connotation of presenting life in a difficult-to-access part of the world. Besides the noted (but slowly thawing) animosity between the Iranian and American governments, travel arrangements in general are difficult, so many of us can only see Iran through a camera lens. (I for one may never even be allowed in Iran – the Arab League’s boycott of Israel is so strong that even having an Israeli stamp on one’s passport can void entry into the country, and my passport has that stamp.)
One of the most remarkable aspects of Iranian cinema is how it flourishes despite the country’s notorious government-backed censorship. Many films have been banned, and the government is known for stopping films before the script is even written. The most notorious case in recent memory is that of Jafar Panahi – a respected filmmaker who was convicted of “propaganda” charges. He was banned from directing, screenwriting, giving interviews (even with foreign media) or leaving the country for any reason besides pilgrimage to Mecca or medical treatment. His life became a subject of the acclaimed documentary This is Not A Film (2012).
Despite this censorship, Iran continues to put out films respected worldwide that are favorites at film festivals. Here are four films from four different decades that demonstrate why. You have my word that all of the below descriptions are spoiler-free.
The Cow (1969)
This film is often considered Iran’s first major cinematic accomplishment, and kicked off the era of Iranian New Wave cinema – an era and style of storytelling inspired by French New Wave films. (Look it up.) It’s a good starting point if you are looking to understand the heritage of Iranian film, or want something artsy with a solid storyline.
Hassan, a married middle aged man with no children, lives in a small rural village. His only valuable possession is his cow, the only cow in the village – which he cherishes more than anything else in the world. When Hassan leaves the village, his cow dies. The villagers worry how he might react, so they cover up any evidence of the cow’s death. Upon Hassan’s return, they tell him that his cow ran away. The loss of his most beloved thing in the world, combined with his lower social stature now that he lost livestock, send Hassan into a downward spiral from which the villagers try to save him.
The Cow was sponsored by the Iranian government, who then tried ban it when they thought it presented the country as a bunch of backwards rubes. As such, the film starts with a title card that declares it took place before the then-current regime. This film was allegedly a favorite of Ayatollah Khomeini, well before the Iranian Revolution and is believed to have been the saving grace for the country’s cinema tradition.
A Separation (2011)
Before I start: if you see only one film on this list, please make it this one.
A Separation follows both sides of a middle class married couple in Tehran – wife Simin wants to leave Iran to provide a better life for her 11-year-old daughter, while husband Nader wants to stay in Iran to care for his Alzheimer’s-ridden father. They file for divorce, but the judge rules that the couple’s problems do not warrant one, so they separate. Nader hires Razieh, a lower-class and deeply religious pregnant woman, to help care for his father. When Nader discovers that Razieh has lied to him, conflict on all fronts arises.
This film is a realistic look at day-to-day life in Iran. It is morally complex – good luck deciding which party is “right” – but is at no point didactic. There is a strong mystery aspect to the plot, and it will keep you guessing until close to the end.
No word mincing: A Separation was the best film I saw from 2011, and has a strong case for one of the best films of the past five years. (Yes, better than The Artist.) After I saw it, my friends and I tried to figure out any flaws and we couldn’t come up with anything. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and was nominated for Best Screenplay, both deservedly so. You will be glued to your seat until the credits stop rolling.
The Song of Sparrows (2008)
Karim is a simple, honest family man who lives a simple, honest, contented life as an ostrich farmer just outside of Tehran. One day an ostrich gets loose. Karim is blamed and gets fired. At the same time, his daughter’s hearing aid becomes damaged and finds out that it will take months for her to get a free replacement. With an upcoming exam making it impossible for her to wait that long, Karim goes into Tehran to get the hearing aid fixed, knowing that it will be expensive. While in Tehran, he gets mistaken for a motorbike taxi driver, and begins a new career as a taxi/delivery man. Soon, the people, places, and things he deals with start to change his nature – he becomes greedy and quick to anger.
The Song of Sparrows is comparable to the classic Italian film Bicycle Thieves – both involve a father trying to help out a family in a difficult financial state and fighting off moral corruption. While it’s distinctly Iranian as a piece of film, it’s not a bad starting point if you want to begin the modern era, as it features a comparatively western style of storytelling and some beautiful cinematography.
Close-Up is an Errol Morris-style docudrama that is equal parts dramatic reenactment and real-life courtroom drama. It’s a different style of film than the other films listed here, artsy-er more Cinéma vérité than storyline driven, but often ranks as one of the best Iranian films of all time.
The documentary aspect is live footage of the trial of Hossain Sabzian. He is charged with impersonating notable Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Under this guise, he befriends a well-to-do family and convinces them he wants them to star in his new film. It is initially believed Sabzian did this to steal from the family – but as he explains himself, it becomes clear his motives were more complex and almost artistic. Interspersed with the trial are recreations of the events catalogued in the trial, with the same real people (re)playing themselves in the same locations.
The fact that this film is available on Criterion should say most of what you need to know about its quality. It takes a little patience, but it provides a suspenseful, naturalistic, and overall fascinating narrative style.
All of the above films can be found on disc via Netflix.