The Crime That Has To Be Tried On The Street
The Films of Masoud Kimiai
Conventional wisdom has it that the overall career arc for a large number of filmmakers is not a constant move towards perfection, but more often than not is comprised of succeeding trends of rise and decline; typical exceptions are when the termination of a director’s career is spelled out by events of unexpected death or early retirement at the height of their fame. Directors whose later works come across as insignificant or lesser works are aplenty. Commenting on these later creative works, critics are often inclined to make a doleful mention of the director’s unanimously applauded films, out of respect for his/her historical significance, stature, and irrefutable achievements. Judging on the basis of the prevailing critical response, one would imagine the same story would apply to Masoud Kimiai’s career. Famously a pillar of The Iranian New Wave of the late 1960s and 70s, he was catapulted to a celebrity status with the successful run of his sophomore “tough-guy” drama of lost honour and revenge Gheysar (1969), which was essential to jumpstarting the New Wave movement. However the director’s recent films have failed to draw the same overwhelming appreciation from his countrymen critics. Still in 2009, when the longest running Iranian film publication, Film Monthly called on its writers to vote for their favourite all-time Iranian films, it was Kimiai’s The Deer (1975) that came out on top. Put together with the sheer volume of publicity surrounding each new film from pre-production all the way up to the screening, this signifies the incontrovertible standing of the director in the context of Iranian cinema, even if critics have decided to consign him to the closet of the pre-revolution Iranian cinema, and expressly branded him a “dated” artist who has already jumped his shark, now flailing in vain to restore his name and keep his career running. In skeptical eyes, Kimiai’s wistful references in his recent films to his older achievements would affirm the conviction above.
Driven by an urge to revisit the underestimated later works of esteemed auteurs under a fresh light as a result of growing incredulousness of the established discourse, I see it incumbent upon me to include Kimiai’s more recent output in this project, to discuss these works in more details and elaborate on promises and perils of the track he has opted for –or, to some extent, been pushed to. In my estimation, two major obstacles stand in the way of a fair evaluation of our veteran director’s oeuvre; firstly is his deviation from classical narrative conventions in spite of his hearty allegiance to classic Hollywood cinema and the closer adherence to narrative rules in his pre-revolution films. Secondly is the uneven quality of his post-1979 works that incorporates both noteworthy films –including Snake Fang (1989) and The Sergeant (1990), his only post-revolution films that made their way to the international festival platforms– and nondescript titles side by side. What makes the matter worse is the trademark overtly masculine spirit of his films, which is an anathema for certain writers. By picking Kimiai’s last two completed and screened pictures 1 The Crime (2011) and Trial on the Street (2009) for a joint discussion, I will try to shed some light on the defining tendencies of Kimiai later works, which depending on other variables have been conducive to his failures or achievements, while the latter has been broadly downplayed or ignored by the mainstream criticism.
The critical misunderstanding surrounding Kimai’s post-revolution films also partially stems from his image as a “socially committed director,” which his pre-revolution films helped him fashion and hence became affixed to his authorial vision. Gheysar, The Deer and The Journey of the Stone (1978) have been widely regarded as prescient pictures, heralding the impending uprising of masses against royal government; even in case of Gheysar, the titular hard-hitting protagonist was seen as an exemplar of a social rebel, who stands up for his tainted honour and seeks justice by means of personal revenge. Kimiai himself willingly embraced this image, and to further emphasise it, kept on defining his films as “realist,” which in the light of the conventional import of the term has lead to further confusion as to quality of his work. Kimiai’s ardent adherence to the vaunted notion of a “realist” filmmaker –which for him apparently makes sense at the level of theme rather than style– sometimes resulted in superficial attempts on his part to establish a link between plots of his films and social events of the day, even if in a muted tone. To the point where one critic 2 was brought to refer to the style of his recent films as film-posters, a term that despite being minted in the critic’s good faith sounded unflattering to the veteran director.
Indeed Kimiai’s recent films are marked by scenes that in their execution openly stray from a realistic presentation of narrative events in favour of a theatricalism. With the director’s immense stress on centrality of realism and his avowed admiration for classic cinema, it would stand to reason that critics would evaluate his films on the likelihood of the plot events and character development from a realistic standpoint, or to use classic film style as their yardstick. While discussing the works of a whole array of acclaimed directors, from Jean Luc Godard to Glauber Rocha to Seijun Suzuki, temporal and spatial confusion and compromised causality has scarcely been as an issue, but Kimiai’s cinema has not been accorded a similar treatment. In fact Kimiai’s own body of work prior to the revolution, even if presenting signs of his latent tendency that came to surface after the 1980s, more tightly followed a classical structure and was readily available as a point of reference to support claims about the decline of his cinema.
Notwithstanding the notion of a “socially aware” director, what Kimiai –and his staunchest fans– are striving to sustain and circulate, to more accurately and consistently define the essence and lifeblood of this auteur’s cinematic métier, is an outpouring love for classic cinema of the 40s and 50s and especially Westerns, which has been haunting him and his buddies –who later became his collaborators– since their childhood. Discussing two of his major contributions to the “tough guy” genre and Iranian cinema at large, Hamid Naficy explains how Kimiai’s imagination found its ideal cinematic hero in the generic figure of tough-guy (jahel) 3 , whose real life counterparts by the director’s own admission left an indelible mark on his childhood memories 4 . It’s the function of Kimiai’s cinematic imagination that these two inspiring sources have conflated and in consequence the generic tough guy has been transfigured into the domestic embodiment and Iranian equivalent of his endeared filmic lone westerners. However as a result of the way they have been touted, Kimiai’s films are discussed in the most by both group of supporters and critics in relation to social reality and the way they represent, or according to their equally unflinching critics, alienate or distort it. This focus on the director’s contentious “realism” has tended to push the cinephilia integral to his cinematic style into the shadows.
The idea that Gheysar –as a key film in establishing Kimiai’s career and renown– was primarily conceived in response to this desire of creating a local filmic hero, and that the political reading of the film was an after fact gains credence in the light of an anecdote related by its producer. In a documentary made on occasion of its 40th anniversary of screening 5 , the producer Abbas Shabaviz explains that he had foreseen the potential of the plot to attract dissident intellectuals and therefore decided to invite them to its premiere to win their support. In the context of the politicised art scene of the time in which artworks were eagerly scrutinised for their political layers and meanings, efforts of this nature brought the social implication of the narrative to the front. At any rate, the legacy of this political reading abided and Kimiai, obviously content with the outcome, tried to further underscore the social dimension of his narratives, which eventually brought him into a brush with the royal regime intelligence service (Savak) in the aftermath of shooting The Deer. While like many other filmmakers of his generation, Kimiai lent his voice and camera to the 1979 uprising and even shortly afterwards had a spell of high management position in the national TV station under the revolutionary government, eventually the ever tightening regulations and restrictions, especially with regards to political issues, forced the filmmaker to re-adjust his style as he resumed his filmmaking activities. But such recalibration that pushed the director’s cinephilia closer to the surface and at times out of tune with conventions of realism did not please some critics and less faithful fans who couldn’t relate to the new incarnation of Kimiai’s trademark heroes, feeling them being out of step with realities of their society. Their impression was again founded on the image of a “socially conscious” director Kimiai continued to take pride in, as well as his supposed alliance to conventions of classic cinema. Kimiai’s enduring effort to live up to this image on one hand, and the blows he received from the Islamic regime censorship since his first post-revolution film The Red Line (1982) –later followed by troubles incurred by the infamous intelligence service which coerced him to become their propagandist, again a curse of his propounded image as a political director– led the director to adopt a new cinematic language that at times shaded into symbolism and allegory. Such a quality was pointed out by at least one Iranian critic 6 who noted a similarity between Kimiai’s Soltan (1996) and East European films made under the authoritarian communist regimes. Characteristic of this modified style are looser narrative structures in which character depth was thinned or made secondary to director’s overall vision of stories populated with familiar stern guys and featuring their treasured friendship. At times not easy to decipher even for domestic viewers, these films as evidenced in one screening event of Soltan in Paris, posed additional difficulty for international spectatorship unfamiliar with Kimiai’s signature and missing the context to read between the lines. Heavy on dialogue and presenting confounding plots, these films are also informed by Kimiai’s longing for his own films from the 1970s by invoking their tone and elements. As such they partake of a dual layer reflexivity. Whereas ambiguity of Kimiai’s films could have been vindicated on the political environment, there is a counter argument put forth by certain critics holding that the political aspect of his story lines are merely a gimmick to maintain his image as a political director 7 ; an intentional ambiguous tone then comes in handy to invite interpretations that reinforces the director’s reputation, while minimising the risk of locking horns with the censorship system, or authorities for that matter.
Kimiai’s last two films in particular could be viewed as part of a larger phenomenon of a desire to revive elements of a trend of filmmaking in the Iranian cinema of 70s, often discussed under the self-revelatory term of “Street films/film-haye khiabani”. The down-and-out, bitter (anti)heros of these films – basically a sub-category of “tough-guy/jaheli” genre– wandered through the streets of the city which rejects and spits out their worthless existence as a nuisance disturbing the glitz of modernizing urban areas. As such, the setting and character attracted high-profile filmmakers such as Amir Naderi, Fereydoun Goleh and Kimiai (in his Reza the Motorcyclist, 1970) to prepare a subversive vision of the urban life, striking a note of dissidence, de rigueur for the time, by defying the state-propounded image of progress and divulging its contradictions. The resurrection of this sub-genre, charged by nostalgic sentiments probably began with Mehdi Noorbakhsh’s Ra’y Baaz (2003), openly cited by its director to be a tribute to that historical movement. To pick a more recent example, I would point to Spite/Boghz (Reza Dormishian-2012), which under the cloak of a film about immigration, makes open reference to the director’s source of inspiration via its characters and plots.
Made and screened one year prior to Dormishian’s debut feature, Crime presents a similar strategy of avoiding to set the story in contemporary Iran, while in its case the mandated transposition was applied temporally (by setting the story at the time when Iran was on the brink of revolution) rather than geographically (as happens in Spite, which positions its characters in the neighbouring Turkey). Whereas the director of Spite bestows a distinction upon his film through a formal style polar opposite to the immediacy and matter-of-factness of its predecessors, Kimiai’s strategy in Crime is to remain plainly evocative and stress the status of his film as an homage. This is warranted by the retrospective nature of the story and achieved by way of using black and white cinematography as well as releasing the film in an additional dubbed version 8 . That both directors in some way felt compelled to transpose their stories – in the case of Crime, according to the director the shooting permit was issued only after meeting the stipulation of changing the timeline of the original script to three decades earlier– would suggest the firmer strictures imposed by the conservative government of Ahmadinejad in its second term after the controversial election. Apparently it could not be approved of a putatively defiant format to deliver a contemporary storyline. Kimiai’s propensity to dwell on his earlier, lauded achievements seemingly worked hand in hand with these limitations, driving him to further self-imitate, rather than to be innovative.
Kimiai’s unremitting love for cinema has operated as double-sided sword, both empowering and afflicting his career in various respects. His veritable lust for shooting –the title of one of his last interview announces “I will not turn this camera off” 9 – resulted in compromises to which he resigned in order to keep his career afloat, of which changes applied to the script of Crime could be symptomatic. On this account, Kimiai’s career could be contrasted with those of other The New Wave assoicated directors, Bahram Beizai and Nasser Taghvai whose comparatively slender outputs were partially linked to their perfectionism. Kimiai on the other hand has proven capable of changing one project overnight for another, as it reportedly happened in case of Soltan. The director’s love for the medium has also surfaced in the shape of frequent direct references to the cinema in his films, increasingly present in a self-aware manner in his later works.
Typical of Kimiai’s cinema, the story of Crime hinges on familiar themes of masculine comradeships, backstabbing and vengeance. In point of fact, his most recent film is so jam-packed with elements from his earlier oeuvre that it comes close to self-homage. The plot of the film is the throwback to – or almost an unuttered remake of– his film from the early 90s, Wolf’s trail (1991), little heard of abroad. As with the earlier work, the protagonist of Crime has to serve a prison term for his fanatic dedication to a friend, who turns out not to be sharing his commitment to principles of male fraternity, which is the staple of Kimiai’s cinema. The reason for the imprisonment of the main character of Crime, Reza Sarcheshme 10 is his involvement in an assassination carried out at behest of his friend, Ghassem khan. Released from the slammer and temporarily reunited with his family, Reza then teams up with his old buddy and companion in crime, Nasser –himself initially subject to Reza’s inklings– to settle his scores with Ghassem khan who is now turned into an eminent businessman, thanks to shady connections he forged with the ruling system.
Easy as it might sound on the paper, the decision to change the narrative timeline of Crime to the past gave the director and his crew the almost insuperable challenge of recreating the pre-revolution days. To one cognisant of drastic changes in the landscape of the capital city Tehran during the last three decades, the trouble in presenting a credible reconstruction of the past by shooting on location is a given. The difficulties with a genuine illustration of the fashion style of the past, especially when actresses’ obligation to wear hijab according to Islamic regime regulations is taken into account, make matters all the more complicated. Despite decent attempts of the filmmaker and his crew to filter out some obvious signifiers of the present time, mainly through limiting the frame and blurring the background, certain scenes of the film are marked by a temporal inconsistency between the diegesis and the visuals, obvious to the local spectator above anything through the presence of modern cars. However Kimiai seems not to be entirely discontent with the outcome, for this incongruity in fact could give away the contrived nature and falsity of this retrospection and underscore its pertinence to the external social reality, which he desires for all his films. While in his interviews, the director choses to remain reticent about the intentionality of this visual dual-temporality, he is also reluctant cited to dispel this notion promoted by his supporters. 11 Interestingly physical items that affirms the enunciated timeline of the narrative are few and far between, a few banknotes, close-up of a newspaper, and royal regime icons sporadically pop up into the frame, and so further contribute to the feeling of temporal confusion. The spectator is also treated to a brief scene of street mayhem with a frightened group of people scurrying past Reza, but that’s not enough to suggest the massive popular movement that at times the dialogue hints at.
There seems to be at least one possible palimpsestic trace of the original project which again could be better grasped by the local audience. Recalling their friendship with Ghassem, Reza mentions their days together in the frontline. Upon its utterance, jebheh (the Farsi equivalent for the frontline) for most of the audience signals the image of the long-running and grinding Iran-Iraq war which scarred the psyche of a nation, even if the character specifies the warring zone as Dhaffar (a province in Kingdom of Oman to which the Iranian Imperial Army was deployed to assist in quelling the anti-government guerillas). The relevance of “frontline” to the later event could be inferred in the light of parallel between the storyline of the film –Ghassem’s climbing his way up to financial ascendancy– and the fact that some of Iran-Iraq war ex-combatants availed themselves of the privileges bestowed upon them to embark upon financial enterprises and solidify their monopoly in the field. As usual Kimiai remains extremely furtive and leaves the conclusion up to the audience. In his previous films, Kimiai often dealt with the idea of power holders, though the spectator is left in the dark as to their real identity owing to the director’s blunt presentation which tends to slip into the realm of ambiguity and metaphor and often reduces these characters to the level of archetypical evil whose retribution has to be inevitably portrayed. As earlier noted, even when stories of his films explicitly echoed social events, Kimiai opted for a dampened presentation of what was actually taking place in the socio-political landscape. His presentation of the notorious hardliner plainclothes and their ambushes on student and intellectual gatherings in The Protest (2001) and ruling system’s belligerence toward intellectuals in Friday’s Soldiers (2002) is too abstract 12 to easily make sense, dulled for good measure by endings that feel simplistic and forced. Add to this the individualistic nature of Kimiai’s cinema that pairs every conflict down to a straightforward Manichean battle of good and evil, reducing the antagonists to singular figures in the process. In accordance with this trend, the presentation of evil power in Crime is still swathed in some degree of allegory, though linking it to the denounced royal regime allows the director to present a relatively more concrete image. Still, Kimiai’s depiction of the evil forces remains as usual limited to middlemen or petty criminals, who are not holding the highest tiers of power, and only the protagonists’ private affairs places them as the target of their vindictive action.
Taking the action back to the past in Crime could be considered another strategy of abstraction to sidestep censorship, but in this occasion it bore additional fruit, for the film – unlike the majority of Kimiai’s films after the revolution– was received enthusiastically by organisers of the Fajr Film Festival, who also saluted the director’s career in the opening ceremony. Eventually in the closing ceremony the film was awarded with the Crystal Simorgh for the best Iranian feature. Notable among the other Iranian contenders of the festival taking place one year after the reputedly rigged election of 2009 was the globally acclaimed, academy-award winning A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011). The conservatives in ascendancy who for better or worse felt affinities with certain aspects of Kimiai’s cinema –masculine traditional-minded heroes who are not in agreement with the new modern world and its values, and the historical role of his films in fermenting the spirit of anti-regal struggle– appear to have felt the retrospective veneer of the film sufficient for sanctioning it and the director. As suggested by this gesture, from their point of view the iconic filmmaker commands praise as long as he is bound up in the past, and he is better to be remembered as the creator of agitprop material fanning the flame of the 1979 revolution.
Setting the story in the past also seems to complement Kimiai’s tendency to present the audience with heroes that look out of place and belonging to a different era. At times Kimiai affirms the incongruence of his central characters by sending them to their on-screen death, oftentimes informed with a mixed feeling of reluctance and resignation, to pronounce the end of their era. Amir Ali, the (anti)hero of Protest who first spends his time in jail for the honour killing of his brother’s unfaithful fiancée and then after his release becomes a plaything by joining the plainclothes –as the film bluntly puts it– to attack bookstores, exemplifies these ill-fated characters, unable to comprehend the new society and its transfigured, more sophisticated network of relations. Unlike him, Reza in Crime embodies the typical hero of Kimiai’s old films, who is bound to mete out the deadly justice on Ghassem for his betrayal, and does not willingly embrace the mortal bullets. It is yet left to us to surmise the length to which the main character in Kimiai’s first, contemporary version would have gone in taking action, since those protagonists of his recent films who belong to the younger generation –despite critics’ ongoing complaint about them being closer to Kimiai’s arch-heroes rather than representative of their real counterparts in the contemporary Iranian society– shrink away from the snapping signature weapon of Kimiai’s old-style protagonists, the (switchblade) knife, for the purpose of cutting open the body of their enemies.
As mentioned earlier, Kimiai’s recent films have are conflicted between director’s wish to represent what is currently happening, and a censorship system that has proven itself as intolerant towards artists’ expression of their independent views as its antecedent in royal regime. In consequence, Kimiai’s style has approximated the language of allegory and mutated into a structure often denigrated as incoherent. In response to obstacles that stand in the way of a more realistic mode of representation, the overwhelming cinephilic impulse of Kimiai’s works tends to step out of sync with the narrative and leaps to the fore. What results is a modified form of temporality – characterised by the languor of action scenes in The Lead (1988) or nightmarish disorientation running through Wolf’s Trail. It would be interesting to note that despite Kimiai’s oft-cited love for classic Hollywood and being dismissive of contemporary cinema, his style moves in the direction of further deviation from the model of classic Hollywood. With the development of a style spawning from his intuitive approach to filmmaking on the one hand and his response to the vagaries of the political scene –more relevant to a director with purported social concerns– the results of Kimiai’s instinctive experience with cinematic forms are hit-and-miss. In some of his most successful post-revolution films such as The Lead and Wolf’s Trail he succeeds in establishing a central logic 13 – often flowing from cinephilia– as the unifying backbone for the film style and narrative, despite aberrations from conventions of classic cinema.
Crime is emblematic of the shortcoming of Kimiai’s cinephilia when it assumes an introspective dimension and in so doing runs the risk of tipping over into self-indulgence. This self-referential penchant would not sound too unusual in case of a director who consciously forges his visual signature by recourse to a recurrent prop (knife). Such tendency for inward reflection is also encouraged by a cadre of fans who to a large extent account for the consolidation of Kimiai’s cinema as a phenomenon in the context of Iranian cinema and Iranian society at large. The loyal fandom would be pleased with finding many elements in Crime that recall their memories of the career of their revered director: use of rail station as the backdrop to chasing Reza and Nasser, melee in the prison bathroom and Reza’s walk down the street with his wife all quote various sequences of Gheysar; the imprisonment and subsequent release of Reza is a throwback to Protest, while even the first images of the film –the fish that is then wildly gutted and chopped– was a recurrent visual motif from one of Kimiai’s minor works, Blade and Silk (1987). In a closer inspection, links and references would probably expand into a lengthier list, but as I mentioned earlier, the overall plot of the film is essentially a reworking of Wolf’s Trail narrative trajectory, to which the story of Nasser and his baptism of fire through “standing the trial” of a venomous snake is added to consummate the collection of familiar themes and images. Despite mimicking its story arc, Crime ends up being a misfired rehash and inferior to the earlier film. In fact the success of Wolf’s Trail to a large extent could be attributed to its almost stripped-down narrative, that save for drawing a line of distinction between the past and the present, makes little reference to the actual historical timelines. In point of fact, as its famous sequence of the protagonist’s horse-riding on the streets of a modernised Tehran suggests, the plot line of the Wolf’s Trail could be uncomplicatedly defined as the comeback of a old-timer hero, one who collectively and manifestly uses the characteristic features of a Westerner (horse) and local tough guys (wound of knife). The film’s semi-archetypal story arc resonates with its abstraction and self awareness, thanks to the various scenes structured to evoke a nightmare rather than a classical narrative. The melancholic climate enveloping the narrative and motivated by the presence of a protagonist who is out of tempo with its surrounding holds pieces of film together even if the casuality of scenes remain loose in the spirit of the post-modern cinema of the day. By adding historical specificity to events of Crime, even if on the surface, the abstract, archetypal quality that gave Wolf’s Trail its distinctive mood dispels; instead it stimulates expectations for a more straightforward narrative to which film fails to answer. In fact, Wolf’s Trail and Crime feature dual-temporality each in their own peculiar way; a comparison of two scenes from the films would be instructive in this respect: in the former film, the horse riding represents the confrontation of an old-fashioned hero with a realistic presentation of a modern city, which forms the gist of the story. On the other hand the finale of Crime showing Ghassem’s henchmen on tail of Reza and Nasser’s ambulance reveals the falsity of the whole diegetic world of the film, one framed and permeated by elements of modern day Tehran that easily scrape off the loose cinematic illusion. In brief, in Crime the incongruity of hero is traded for that of the whole set-up. Despite taking up the commitment of positioning the story in the context of a historical upheaval in society, Kimiai shows little interest to go too far in this direction, and as he keeps his cards tight to his chest as regards his true intentions, the dual-temporality turns into a misfired, illegible effect.
In a farrago of reprised elements and themes that Crime offers, the scene where Nasser thrusts his hand in the bag of snakes to prove his faithfulness to suspicious Reza remains the most original and most potent scene in the whole movie. This is not unexpected from a director who has created some of the most memorable and touching instants of male friendship in the whole story of Iranian cinema. The opening scene to this sequence –Reza and Nasser walk towards camera in an extreme long shot and against the backdrop of a deserted area is a summation of this running theme. As with Protest, prison is simply another set-up to orchestrate masculine relation and exploits. The way prison is depicted with the liberties the prisoners enjoy – the senior prisoner Raf’at Khan’s authority hardly puts him in a slighter position than the jail superindent’s– makes it more feel like a garrison than an actual penitentiary. One would wish if in exploring his familiar themes, Kimiai would try to seek new scopes as he did in the scene with the bag of snakes. Instead he seems more resolved to put his customary images in the loop to please his hard core fans who expect each of his films to hark back to his old pictures and their hyped macho values in an affirmative manner.
Holding Crime side by side with Kimiai’s earlier films, made 1-2 years apart, reveals a fluctuating career swinging from a director who tries to diversify his authorial scope, to one resting on his laurels. While still brimming with the specific, nostalgic flavour of a Kimiai’s film, Trial on the Street features an opening up in the scope of the stories on offer. From using a parallel thread to its final twist, the film displays a fresh narrative take in the seasoned author’s corpus. Part of credit for that might go to Asghar Farhadi, thanked in the credits for his collaboration on the script. As a director with a respect for his senior colleague –in a video interview he refers to the horse-riding scene in Wolf’s Trail to invalidate claims about decline in Kimiai’s directorial panache– Farhadi’s influence on the finished film is quite palpable. That being said, the collaboration and contribution from other writers seems to be salutary to Kimiai’s career, resulting in some of his remarkable works in the post-revolution period, including Snake Fang (1990) and Sergeant (1991), although there are still counter examples –such as Mercedes (1997). Kimiai’s manipulation of material has by no means been faithful, and the early story or scenario only functioned as a springboard for the director to enforce his conventions regarding characters and events by transmuting them in a way that squares with his own taste (one clear case is his Lead in which the original, supposedly anti-Zionist early script only remained a pretext for Kimiai to bring about his tribute to classical American gangster films). Doubtless, Trial on the Street was an experience of similar nature, the success of which could have revamped the distinguished director’s career in a new direction. But the general reactions to the film were only tepid; it did not satisfy the director’s hard-core supporters for its unsung rendering of macho values, showing them in irreparable state of decline. On the other hand, the bleakness in which this decline has been forecast should not have been to liking of the director’s critics who would view this as another attempt by director to stick to a clichéd past, even on the pretext of lamenting over the loss of its accompanying values. The film should have also incensed those writers who bring the politics of gender into their evaluation for its depiction of women as seductresses, though as I will shortly describe the film resists against being interpreted straightforwardly as a misogynist picture. In sum, despite a few positive reviews – including Hamid Reza Sadr’s appreciative writing in Iranian Film Monthly– the overall reception was hardly an encouraging one.
Trial on the Street first introduces the spectator to Amir, a young lad raised in the southern part of the city, who in a few hours is to celebrate the matrimonial union with his beloved Marjan. But his joy is spoiled by a call from his old buddy who invites him over to his workplace only to entreat him to defer the wedding. To justify his request, he reveals to Amir a devastating secret: Marjan has had an affair with another man, which has lead to a pregnancy and abortion. Torn between his heartfelt love for her future wife and implacable anger aggravated by his traditional mindset, and yet unable to give full credit to his friend’s story, Amir hastes off to find the truth before making any decision on the wedding. Then the film features its parallel, second narrative thread. The segue is created through the agency of a camera woman recording Marjan in the beauty salon and then having to depart facing ill-tempered Amir’s barking. The second narrative thread follows a man named Nekooyi, the owner of a bankrupt company who has fallen victim to perfidy of his close friend and partner who is having an affair with his wife. After stealing Nekooyi’s money and stabbing him, the friend joins Nekooyi’s wife and her little child in their rush to the airport in order to board a flight out of the country. The taxi driver they hire emerges to be the man Amir is searching for.
Set in contemporary day, the film both in spirit and choice of location is truer to the “street films” than a patina of the old school such as Crime. As opposed to the muted presence of the city in Crime necessitated by drastic changes of urban landscapes and streets of the capital city, Tehran stands at the centre of drama. The agency of the city exceeds being a stage for unfurling the story; Tehran develops into a distinct character, one encircling, overlooking and dominating its disillusioned inhabitants who are inveigled by their dreams to join in the city’s constant hustle. Interspersed throughout the film are leitmotif images of streets and highways congested with car traffic –though in a better shape than the actual chaos that gives the city its notoriety– and right from the beginning of the film the ominous noise of cars help establish the city’s oppressive mood. Barring the fight scene between Nekooyi and his friend, the drama unfolds on the streets of the city and its public spaces. After all the streets are where the betrayal sprouts out – Marjan’s rumoured lover is a cab driver and their supposed amorous relation blooms of her travels down the streets of the city, using the service of his future lover – and where it has to be settled once and forever, as Amir hopes; it also hosts the convergence of the two narrative strands of the film. Rarely in his previous films has Kimiai deployed images of the street with such frequency. Towards the end of the film, the camera shows city highways crammed with a slow moving traffic and starts tilting down over rows of cars until the image goes fully upended. The feeling elicited by this visual somersault is that the virulent city is folding over itself, engulfing its inhabitants and leaving them no escape route to find redemption from its corrosive air.
While the cinemagoers are conditioned not to envision Kimiai’s cinema without the iconic knife, the other recurrent object in his cinema attracted less attention. Kimiai’s reputed personal love for cars leads to almost fetishistic presentation of automobiles, specially the old-style ones in his films. The memorable moments include scenes of tooling around on Rolls Royce in the alleys of southern part of the city in Reza, the Motorcyclist or the opening scene of Wolf’s Trail, where the camera treats the old Cadillac like a sacred object by tracking around it. With Kimiai’s cinematic worlds habitually hinging on characters whose demise is a result of their inability to adapt to the shift of values and seemingly modern relations, automobiles would be the right tools to signify confusion that accompanies a disfigured and unbalanced modernity. In the real world, the seemingly insoluble heavy traffic of Tehran is caused by an immense craze towards modern technology, whereas the traffic rules that regulate use of technology is by and large met with reluctance and dismissal. In the context of Kimiai’s cinema, old style cars usually offer a distinction and dignity to the protagonist, whereas the new-style cars are deprived of the similar treatment and stand for a superficial culture of commerce and the nouveau riche; instances could be the scene of old schoolmates’ reunion at the restaurant in The Feast (1995), that borders on parody by showing characters dismounting from identical brand new cars, or the Mercedes (1997) in which the supposedly wish-fulfillment vehicle eventually ends up in tongues of fire in one of the most facile endings in Kimiai’s whole career. In Trial on the Street, as the logic of the story demands, the screen is awash with scores of these new cars, whose drivers like Reza could be imagined to be fooled by similar mirages of bliss while in fact are entrapped in its labyrinthine structure. Ironically in Crime, more than anything, it is these new cars, almost impossible to expunge from the film’s imagery, that give lie to the inauthenticity of the recreated past, and undermine the historical temporality of the image.
In contrast to Reza Sarcheshme in Crime, the protagonist of the earlier film, played by the same actor, the director’s son Poolad, is not merely a replica of the headstrong, feisty man of his pre-revolution films. Granted, he comes from the same neighbourhood and is bound by the similar traditions and morality that, even if attenuated, has continued to exist, and it is precisely the same lingering values that ignite the drama of the film. Nonetheless, as the film shows, Amir’s commitment to these codes remain on the surface. For all his threats and even carrying the trademark weapon around, he is depicted as too gullible to fill in the place of severe and unrelenting heroes that helped Kimiai garner his fame and popularity. By being shown to take lies on trust, Amir descends into the position of a victim who, even if half-heartedly, accedes to the rules of the game and does not negate the prospect of settling in a domestic life by taking drastic actions. As he mentions in a line of dialogue, he has toiled hard to climb up the social ranks and
achieve his present status, which even if he doesn’t feel completely at ease with, has allowed him to fulfill his dreams.
When Amir is finally shown confronting his fiancée’s lover and trying to extort the truth about their relation, part of their dialogue is rendered inaudible. Remarkably this includes the last part of their conversation. We don’t hear the mollifying words that brings Amir back to Marjan and only see them in an extreme long-shot walking back to Amir’s decked-out car as they talk. In doing so, Amir is portrayed more resigned than convinced. The next close-up of him deep in thought while driving is followed by a shot of the decoration on the trunk flying off the speeding care and tumbling away. This visual metaphor would confirm the above reading, even if Amir puts up a forced face of happiness as he makes it back to the wedding just in time to stop Marjan from going away. The decision to infuse ambiguity to the scene of Amir’s conversation with the driver by hiding the final dialogue from the spectators helps this turning point from succumbing to the corniness that afflicts a decisive moment of Crime: when Reza, commissioned by Ghassem khan for another assassination, stops short from training his pistol on his target after overhearing his phone conversation with Ghassem khan. Regardless of the director’s argument in interviews that Reza’s change of heart had happened earlier in the film, it only bespeaks a bad taste, which fortunately had not permeated Trial.
With Reza unable to live up to standards of a traditional hero of Kimiai’s cinema, the director decides to put in his standard creature through a parallel in the narrative, which also involves another smart application of the director’s cinephilia. Nekooyi, the ill-fated centre-point of the second strand is a man of the past in every sense, not only in his attire – the fedora hat he wears links him to both figures of classic Hollywood gangster and film noir, and their later reincarnation in works of French filmmaker Melville, as well as the cinematic figure of jahel (tough guy) in Iranian cinema– but also through his incommunicado status. Being under pressure from his creditors warrants his inaccessibility from the standpoint of drama, but his seclusion evidently means more than that. In keeping with Kimiai’s old-timer characters Nekooyi has been branded a persona non grata by the city for his unfamiliarity with the new rules of the game, leading him to go bust; even his stabbing is orchestrated in the solitude of his house, significantly in front of a home screen. The apparently high-model car he is briefly shown driving can be taken as indication of an attempt on his part to assimilate into the city and submit to the zeitgeist, a scuppered attempt that stirs a sense of self-despise – worded in his dialogue with his friend/killer – and cannot reverse his fatal destiny.
As the film takes its spectator to meet him, it cues him up to the introduction of the incongruous character. When the two camerawomen climb the stairs of the building where Nekooyi’s office is located, we hear the tune of an old song, played on accordion. But the nostalgic tune is unpleasantly interrupted by the ring of the mobile phone 14 , which makes the player pause to answer. This seemingly insignificant moment effectively imparts the ideas of nostalgia and interruptive and overwhelming technology associated with the new society. The building in which office is located, a multi-storey building that in feel dates back to the 60s-70s, also echoes Kimiai’s interests in landscapes with nostalgic repercussion, where earlier technologies/modernities have slumped in a state of negligence while the new, rootless culture has taken over 13 .
The fact that Nekooyi is more like a cinematic hero popping out of the screen into a wrong timeline is accentuated by director’s cinematic reflexivity (displaying the film apparatus). While Kimiai has a penchant to manifestly inscribe his personal love for the cinema in the diegesis of his films, it is one of instances when this running cinephilia is integrated in a controlled way and in harmony with the story and other elements of the film. As I described above, the fight between Nekooyi and his partner –who has been caught while emptying the safe– is staged in front of a screen over which the scene of a birthday party from the past is being played. The contrasts between past and present, friendship and double-crossing, filmic bliss and stark reality are all encouraged by this visual backdrop. As per usual, the big screen in Kimiai’s cinema stands for an impeccable, innocent dream. One would also think of Nekooyi and Amir as fictional and real-life parallel victims to conspiracies of lust; whereas the fictional/cinematic character, who does not belong to this period, is bound to be knifed and slain in the style of Kimiai’s most memorable heroes, the young character has to acquiesce and ward off his consuming doubts. Yet the same parallel might drive one to ponder if the future would not hold a similar tragedy for him.
Even at the visual level, the superiority of Trial on the Street in terms of innovation is apparent. Instead of shooting in black and white to fully imitate the look of a cinema of the past, Trial on the Street, as the director’s first experience with digital cinematography, presents its images in a sepia tone, or more exactly a very toned-down colour range that borders on sepia. It might not be easy to explain how this exactly operates at the level of perception, but for the purpose of this overview it seems that a contrast between setting of the film, contemporary Tehran, and a tint that has gained its main application in highlighting the past with nostalgic implication serves to establish the pronounced bleak, plangent tone of the film.
Bearing the stigma of a masculine cinema, it is no surprise for Kimiai’s cinema that the persistence he shows in praising traditional values of manhood and fraternity is reviled by critics who find this tone and themes not suited to the contemporary time. While at first blush, the story of the film would suggest a misogynistic impulse that builds on the archetypical/biblical image of woman as the source of all troubles and decline of the man, Kimiai’s presentation of his female characters invests them with further complexity. Nekooyi’s wife’s perplexity seems to be the result of conflicting feelings about her husband that has pushed their matrimonial life into a cul-de-sac. While she tells the driver about her fears over the uncertainties she would face if leaving the country, it is left to the audience to imagine what has led her to abandon her lover and leave the airport; fear of getting caught or fretting about her future, or her rekindled sentiments about her expired husband? As for Marjan, from the beginning to the end she is pictured in a way that makes the spectator sympathise with her and discount the information coming from Amir’s friend as either unfounded rumour or exaggerations. What further drives the spectator to relate to and empathize with Marjan is the scene of her waiting for Amir’s return to the wedding. In her solitude and with mixed feelings of hope and despair, she lovingly caresses the empty seat next to her, to visually translate her sincere need and authentic longing for her beloved. Curiously she seems to have no close relative to help her out in this crisis, and thus her dire need to be in Amir’s life is emphasised. Altogether she is presented in a way that is incommensurate with the grave and unforgivable –from Amir’s traditional mentality– deeds put to her blame.
This sympathetic image could also be related to the fact that final revelation of the story is saved for the last moment. Right after we see Marjan and Reza reunited, the film offers its major twist– here the influence of Farhadi as the a creator of scripts built on unexpected twists and revelations can be sensed, if not confirmed – by exposing the veracity of the rumours about his affair with Marjan. The revelation however comes too late into the film to write off the feelings the audience has already experienced for Marjan. The final scene also merely discloses the existence of an affair without giving any detail. Still it is pungent enough to undermine the treacly optimism of the preceding scene of reconciliation. In comparison to the male characters with rather accessible psychology, the women of the film present an enigmatic persona, barely allowing their complicated sentiments to fully ooze out onto the screen. Uncharacteristic of a Kimiai’s film as it might sound, there is no real evil character in the scenario. Even Nekooyi’s friend seems to be guided with a bona fide love for his wife. It might also be related to the casting of the actor whose physical features works against him being taken as a credibly evil character.
The image of Tehran as a tumultuous city riddled with dysfunctional social relations that every once in a while yields tragedies has been in profuse circulation in local newspaper columns, magazines and through word of mouth. The bleakness conveyed through Kimiai’s image of life in this metropolitan city is consistent with the general feeling, though diluted and slanted by director’s own sentiments. For the closing credits images from the street unrests of 2009 are appended to the film, albeit in stylised form. In view of the lack of any hint to the political state of affairs throughout the film and the fact that those social events took place after the film was completed, it is difficult to conjecture what the director intended the audience to make of these closing images. Are they supposed to insinuate the explosion of pent-up anger and disaffection under the dark mood evoked by the film? Lacking a narrative justification allows the audience to arrive at their own interpretation of these pictures, if anything, and yet this ambiguity hardly has an impact on a connection with the film narrative.
Coming in succession, Crime and Trial on the Street hint at two artistic possibilities for our pioneering director, to recycle scenes and characters of his previous films with some variations, or to try to diversify his authorial world by imbibing new ideas and fitting them into the mould of his vision. The common denominator of these two options is nothing but the director’s worldview, to which certain critics seem to take objection at any condition. For all the claims about the director’s lack of touch with his own time, Trial on the Street effectively conveys the spirit of the city and of its era, one infested with lies and suspicions that beggars an easy judgment (the themes Farhadi also deals with in his cinema). What distinguishes Kimiai’s treatment is his skepticism towards the new society and an elegiac concession to the end of an era (which also includes the era of classic cinema). Much as I hate to refer to a person’s age, the truth is our director is now in his seventies, with a career spanning over four decades under his belt and it would be unfair and unrealistic to expect him to present a viewpoint radically different from what his films used to offer. However, in the light of director’s tendency for self-repetition fuelled by his devotees’ expectations, projects such as Trial on the Street represents a breath of fresh air in the career of the director who looks through his lens with the same ardour that he and his playmates used to play out through the daring antics of their onscreen idols.
- This piece has been written before Kimiai shot his new film, Metropole (2014), received with controversy in its initial screening at Fajr Film Festival, February 2014. ↩
- Omid Rohani ↩
- Tough Guy film stands as the most distinct and prolific filmic genre in Iranian cinema prior to 1979. ↩
- Naficy, Hamid. A Social History of Iranian Cinema- Volume 2. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011. P. 291-293. ↩
- Gheysar, Forty Years Later (Masoud Najafi- 2009) ↩
- Kambiz Kaheh in his report on 15th Fajr Film Festival ↩
- Golmakani, Hooshang. “Negahi be Sorb, Yek Film-e Aasheghane”. (“Taking a look at The Lead, A Film of Love”). Collected Articles on Critique and Introduction of Cinema of Masoud Kimiai. Ed. Zaven Ghookasian. Tehran: Agah, 1990. P. 497. ↩
- Golmakani, Hooshang. “Negahi be Sorb, Yek Film-e Aasheghane”. (“Taking a look at The Lead, A Film of Love”). Collected Articles on Critique and Introduction of Cinema of Masoud Kimiai. Ed. Zaven Ghookasian. Tehran: Agah, 1990. P. 497. ↩
- Film Monthly- July 2011 ↩
- Kimiai has frequently named his protagonists Reza especially in recent years. ↩
- In Kimiai’s interview with Film Monthly, the interviewer recalls that during post-production, Kimiai did not mind keeping some of those assumedly faulty shots in the final film. Without giving much detail as to his true intentions, Kimiai only mentions that the film has benefited from setting the story in the past. (See Hassaninasab, Nima. “ Man In Doorbin ra Khamoosh Nakhaham Kard- Goft-o-goo ba Masoud Kimiai”. (“I Will not Turn This Camera Off- An Interview with Masoud Kimiai”). Film Monthly. 29.428 (July 2011): 106-114. ↩
- This is the quality Golmakani identifies in The Lead as one of its formal features of its narrative. Years later, it appears to become mainstay of director’s style. ↩
- In his two reviews of The Lead, Hooshang Golmakani has done a commendable job in explicating the internal logic of the film and its style. ↩
- Cars are not the only baleful visions of technology in the film , it is also through unnerving rings of mobile phones that tension builds up. ↩
- In his two reviews of The Lead, Hooshang Golmakani has done a commendable job in explicating the internal logic of the film and its style. ↩