Simulation (2017)

Simulation, a film from Iran directed by and featuring Abed Abest, cleverly strips its actors and set design to the bone and turns its chronology upside down to address the unspoken. 

Simulation / TamarozIran
4*

Director:
Abed Abest

Screenwriter:
Abed Abest

Director of Photography:
Hamid Khozouie Abyane

Running time: 85 minutes

Original title: تمارض
Transliterated title: Tamaroz

It’s far from a perfect comparison, and the two films go in very different directions, but calling Abed Abest’s Simulation a Persian Dogville is a useful shortcut for saying it has austere, even Brechtian, stage design and deals with very real events and emotions while also being visibly and deliberately artificial. While the two films’ directors find filmic solutions to what is essentially a stage-bound production, the Iranian filmmaker doesn’t have his Danish counterpart Lars von Trier’s radical taste for doom and gloom. And yet, given the setting of Simulation’s first (i.e. final) act, a police station on the Iran-Iraq border, the tone is far from light.

The reason why the first act is also the last act is because the last act turns out to be the first: Abest starts with the climax and then works his way back (similar to, but much less detailed than, Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible). In so doing, he presents us with an inverted chronology of events that unspool until we reach the dramatic moment of stasis when a decision is made that ultimately leads to the tragedy of the film’s opening minutes.

In the opening scene, three young men are brought handcuffed into the police station in Abadan, the site of major conflict during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Accompanying them is Esi, a much older man. This early part of the narrative may very well be the most important, as two conflicting stories quickly emerge. The three young men are accused of attempting to burgle Esi’s home. They deny any wrong doing and say Esi assailed them for no reason whatsoever, even though he had invited them in as his guests. Esi has a very different account, but both sides seem equally passionate and sincere about their version of events.

Simulation‘s first few minutes are very different from anything we are used to seeing in the cinema and already hint at a strong sense of alienation: The opening credits sequence features a particularly unusual approach, namely to show the actors approach and look directly into the camera. They do so mostly one by one, while in the background a giant green screen is impossible to miss. Something else that draws our attention in the film is the fact that some details seem deliberately off. For one, although Esi is continually referred to as an old man, the actor, Danial Khojasteh, is about the same age as the three “young” men and does not behave in a way that suggests he is that much older than they are.

The vibrant green spills over into the rest of the set design, as most of the objects, from doors to tables to mobile phones, are all the same kind of… let’s call it “green-screen green”. In interviews, Abest has suggested that his idea was to allow these coloured objects to serve as types of intra-scenic green screens onto which the viewer can project his or her own imagined colours or textures. In a way, then, it is easy to interpret the green as a kind of freedom for the viewers to add or construct their own ideas. And although the connection between the green here and the green of the 2009 Iranian Green Movement in Iran is never made explicit, it goes without saying that this potential for symbolism will be at the forefront of most viewers’ minds.

However, what the blue sneakers mean (all the character wear exactly the same kind) beyond serving as a facile reference to “blue screen” is much less clear.

The opening scene at the police station, filled as it is with contradictory information about the events earlier that same evening, also creates a sense of dread that will hang over the entire film, no matter how bright the final moments are. In fact, as with Noé’s (admittedly much darker) film, the levity of the conclusion only serves to emphasise the despair of the scenes leading up to it.

The central part of the story takes place at Esi’s home. A man who lost his loved ones during the war (in a wonderfully staged, unexpected flashback inserted between the scene at the police station and the one at his home), Esi has become a rather wealthy businessman and, by the looks of it, a well-established bachelor. When he answers the door late at night, his expression and body movements make it immediately clear he is thrilled that the three young men – Abed (Abest himself), Vahid (Vahid Rad) and Aris (Majid Yousefi) – have paid him a visit. As the evening wears on, it becomes more and more evident he is a gay man, a fact seemingly acknowledged by the director when Esi starts playing an Elton John song on his bright-red piano. It may not be Madonna or Judy Garland, but the signs can only be missed by someone who is wilfully blind. This being a film from a country where homosexual acts are punishable by death, the film doesn’t venture much farther than innuendo.

As the four of them sit on a pair of couches in Esi’s lounge, the camera does something unusual. It divides the scene into blocks without using any cuts. Abest is very skilled at creating the illusion that the action is playing out in real time: Every time the camera moves to focus on a different character or pair of characters, the action “freezes”, meaning the actors stop moving until the camera, with a dramatic flourish, has reached a new spot. In this way, we get the feeling that there are no false cuts. In fact, the editing seamlessly combines different takes, but for those reading the subtitles, these transitions go by almost entirely unnoticed.

It comes as no surprise that Abest starred in the lead in Shahram Mokri’s stunning Fish & Cat (ماهی و گربه), a single-take feature film that was also very creative in its approach to time. 

Abest has said that the film is whatever the viewer chooses it to be, thus neatly putting the onus of proving the presence of controversial themes on the viewer. And yet, despite the sparse décor, there is more than enough information to work with – not only the dialogue, which is so abundant that the film often struggles to distinguish itself from a theatrical production, but also the gestures, the looks and the multitude of sound effects that are deployed. At times, the sound is clear and natural, but at other times there is a slight echo that makes it sound like it was recorded surreptitiously, perhaps by microphones planted on the premises by paranoid authorities.

The meaning of the title is not particularly self-evident (What is the simulation, and what is being simulated? Is the film a simulation of Abest’s imagined story? Of ours?), but we get that the film is an artistic representation rather than a mimetic one. And yet, because the story is easy to follow despite the play with time and design, the viewer is quickly immersed in the action, trying to figure out what comes next by trying to find the intentions behind the actions.

Simulation is creative, smart, daring and unexpectedly engaging.

Viewed at ÍRÁN:CI – the Festival of Iranian Films in Prague 2018.

About Elly (2009)

About EllyIran
4.5*

Director:
Asghar Farhadi
Screenwriter:
Asghar Farhadi
Director of Photography:
Hossein Jafarian

Running time: 114 minutes

Original title: درباره الی‎
Transliterated title: Darbareye Elly

Because her name is right there in the title, we do all we can in the first act to understand who this mysterious young woman is who has been invited along to the beach by a few other families. She reveals little about her own life, except for being the teacher of the one family’s daughter, but whenever she is not looking, the others talk about her, and in particular they ask the one bachelor in the group, Ahmad, how he is getting along with her.

The woman who invited her, and who seems to be the closest to her, is Sepideh, who gives the impression of being in control of the group and makes decisions she expects everyone else to obey and agree with. But once disaster strikes and Elly goes missing, Sepideh admits she doesn’t even know Elly’s full name. And whatever other details about her life she has, she refuses to share with the group.

Sepideh is a very unlikeable character, at first because she assumes to know best for the increasingly awkward Elly, who wants to leave but is told not to by Sepideh, and then because she obviously knows much more than she is letting on but instead keeps critical information to herself in the name of “honouring” Elly, who has disappeared.

The comparison may seem appropriate, but this is far from being a Persian version of L’Avventura. Whereas Antonioni’s film was much more cynical about human relationships and their longevity even in the face of tragedy, director Asghar Farhadi’s (whose next film, A Separation, would bring him to worldwide attention) About Elly revels in the opposing forces in such a group of individuals who from the outside may seem to constitute a very orderly unit.

Sepideh plays a central role in this enduring tension, as even when she tells her side of the story, or Elly’s story, decisions are made to protect others by continuing the lies, or modifying the official story, which inevitably ends up too weak to be credible and makes these people, most of whom have the purest intentions, look like outright liars. One person who doesn’t lie is the straight-talking Peyman (played by Peiman Ma’adi, who starred as one of the two main characters in A Separation), and the dynamics between him and his wife, Shohreh, throughout the film are fascinating to watch.

Peyman’s son, Arash, nearly drowns when Elly is supposed to watch over him. Meanwhile, she is busy flying a kite on the very same beach. She seems happy but also completely disconnected from her responsibility to watch over the children. Granted, this momentary happiness only masks the pain she feels at having been told to stay put by Sepideh, and in an extended sequence of shots showing her smiling face in close-up as she runs with the kite across the beach, the background completely blurred, we realise her inner world has taken over completely.

The circumstances surrounding Arash’s near-drowning remain murky, as the adults only have the children as witnesses and they are still trying to find more details about Elly’s whereabouts. Shortly before her disappearance, she had said she wanted to leave and go back to Tehran, even if she had to accomplish that on foot. But would she have left her bag and her phone, and not even said goodbye to anyone there? That is the question that hangs above the proceedings for most of the film.

We are not only interested in whether Elly has died or not, but what her disappearance reveals about the relationships between the characters as a result of this tragic event, and while Sepideh certainly bears most of the blame for instigating a sequence of events that turns toxic, the temporary solutions found by family and friends to try and protect her or themselves are always insufficient, insofar as they are always only half-truths or lies.

The image of a car stuck in the wet sand on the beach ends the film, and it is a fitting visual metaphor for the sticky territory in which the characters have unwittingly become entangled because of a few simple missteps, despite Peyman’s best efforts to get to the truth and tell the truth to those who deserve to know it.

One such person is someone very close to Elly, who is much more sympathetic than we are led to believe, and his appearance late in the film proves once more that it is better to know the truth than to hear stories told by others, however close they may appear to be to the tales they are telling.

About Elly is a very engaging ensemble piece that has a handful of characters who are frustrating to watch because we know they are behaving in a way that slows down the gathering of information, but in the end, however much we disagree with their methods, we can understand why they are acting in such a way. Farhadi gives us tiny glimpses of individual characters doing things on their own, isolated from other people, to suggest joy or secrecy or intense pain. He does this without spending excessive energy to highlight a fact easily surmised from the film itself: This is a simple story rendered complex by the actions of people who have their reasons, and the mix of reasons and individuals almost inevitably leads to tension of which the consequences are often impossible to predict.

A Separation (2011)

SeparationIran
4.5*

Director:
Asghar Farhadi
Screenwriter:
Asghar Farhadi
Director of Photography:
Mahmoud Kalari

Running time: 123 minutes

Original title: جدایی نادر از سیمین‎
Transliterated title: Jodaeiye Nader az Simin

A woman anxiously tries to cross a busy road in downtown Tehran to prevent an old man from being hit by oncoming traffic. She stands there, helpless, while cars whizz past her and the man fatefully shuffles closer and closer towards what seems like certain death.

Then, something unusual happens: There is a cut to a few hours later at an apartment, where the old man silently rocks back and forth, seemingly unaffected by the chaotic scene from earlier. This single cut, instead of being a cop-out on the part of director Asghar Farhadi, sets up a mystery that will last the entire running time of A Separation. Filmically, it is also a decision that makes perfect sense, since it immediately compels us, the viewers, to start figuring out what might have happened — and in so doing puts us in the same boat as the lion’s share of the film’s characters.

This incident, as well as another major event in the plot, when this same woman is tossed out of the flat and collapses in the stairwell, besides being a mystery that needs to be resolved by the end of the film, is also indirectly the result of the “separation” in the title. In the opening scene, staged so the viewers take the place of judges who will decide the fate of the couple that looks straight at us, we learn that husband and wife Nader and Simin want to separate so she can move to the United States while her husband stays behind to look after his elderly father, the man who would later seek to cross the road.

Though the situation and the motivations seem clear-cut enough, the film quickly reveals itself to be a very perceptive study of human drama, which puts forward an array of sometimes contradictory actions that cannot easily be understood or pigeonholed for the purposes of entertainment. Many small tragedies unfold along the way, not with melodramatic outbursts or big scenes of betrayal, but in very methodical increments that eventually escalate into a full-blown crisis.

Nader (Peyman Moaadi), who works during the day, cannot take care of his father and therefore enlists the help of a kindly woman named Razieh (Shahab Hosseini) to clean the flat and make sure the father doesn’t hurt himself. But on Razieh’s first day at work, the old man, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and rarely speaks, wets himself. This episode, which puts Razieh in a tough position, because she wants to help him without touching him — for, viewed in religious terms, that might mean she is committing a sin by making herself impure — is presented with genuine sympathy for both characters despite the filmmaker’s unmistakable view that it would be patently absurd for a religion to prevent someone from changing the soiled pants of an invalid.

The film’s focus is on the role of truth and lies in daily life, and it is Razieh who best captures this tension. She is obviously a good person and tells white lies to her husband in an effort to make his own life better, but moreover her docile attitude is likely the result of her husband’s rigid religious beliefs. While Razieh’s lies finally catch up with her, a lie that Nader’s daughter tells keeps him from going to jail, and this ambiguity of life is what many filmmakers over time have sought to capture.

It is truly admirable for a film to take on such complicated matters and keep them in line with the legal drama that occupies a large part of the plot. Going way beyond the constraints of a film such as Kramer vs. Kramer, A Separation is insightful enough to realize the truth, at times, can make things more difficult rather than easier, and the film is a journey, for the characters and for the viewer, towards discovering the truth behind the lies and the reasons for people’s actions.

The one major flaw of A Separation is the film’s rapid-fire editing that often covers a single scene from multiple angles in quick succession without offering a new perspective on the material. However, against the background of intelligent, understated commentary on Iranian society and with a visible representation of many different kinds of characters, this remains an emotionally satisfying film that is a significant milestone in Iranian filmmaking.