Iran is renowned for producing some of the most splendid and cerebral films in the world, but there are few opportunities to see these films in the United States. With this in mind, film curators from the MFA, the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer and Sackler Galleries, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, work together to curate this compelling annual festival offering a range of perspectives by contemporary Iranian filmmakers. This year’s lineup for The Boston Festival of Films from Iran includes Narges Abyar’s Breath, which is Iran’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, and Ali Soozandeh’s Tehran Taboo, an artfully animated film that tells the interlocking stories of four residents of the Iranian metropolis.
Directed by Abed Abest (2017, 84 min.). Digital.
This innovative thriller from Abed Abest (Fish and Cat) follows three bored young men who decide to pay a visit to an older man they barely know. When their host becomes convinced that his visitors have come to rob him, he turns a gun on them and phones the police. The three friends are taken into custody.
This simple story is pared down ever more as the film progresses. Filmed entirely in a black box, Simulation turns green-screen technology on its head. In addition to the green studio walls, the props are green and act as projection screens themselves. The cars are white. The male characters all wear jeans and T-shirts and the same blue plastic shoes. The synthetic space breeds anxiety as the real world becomes increasingly remote. In Simulation, abstraction becomes a place of exile.
Directed by Mohsen Gharaie (Iran, 2017, 90 min.). Digital.
This tense social drama follows Ghasem, a government employee in Tehran, who is charged with preventing vendors from selling their wares on the sidewalk. When Ghasem is caught taking bribes from vendors in exchange for turning a blind eye, he loses his job and hatches a plan to make a living as a truck driver. He’s counting on his wife’s inheritance to buy the truck, but she wants to use it to buy a house so they can stop living with Ghasem’s parents. As tensions mount at home, Ghasem’s problems come to a head when he’s accused of assaulting a street vendor.
Directed by Ali Asgari (2017, 89 min.). Digital.
In an Iranian culture that operates within strict social mores, Sara, a university student, and her boyfriend Hamed allow their youthful naïveté to get the best of them. Sara is injured unexpectedly and needs surgery—but because the young couple has a secret to hide, none of the hospitals, whether public or private, will give Sara more than the most basic medical attention. As the night wears on, Sara’s medical requirements become more urgent, solutions become increasingly farfetched, and the pair’s relationship teeters on the brink of collapse.
As the troubled couple at the center of the film, first-time actors Sadaf Asgari and Amir Reza Ranjbaran shine in remarkably natural performances that capture all the awkwardness of early adulthood—somewhere in between bewilderment and indignation—when faced with restrictive social norms. While director Ali Asgari’s film criticizes to some extent the highly regimented and perhaps invasive nature of the Iranian state, it also asks pointed questions of the lack of compassion of individuals who hold authority within the system—whether they are following the rules or exploiting the need to break them. Disappearance is an exploration of what hangs in the balance when bleakness overpowers hope.
Directed by Narges Abyar (2017, 112 min.). Digital.
Little Bahar lives a life spun from folklore and stories, always with her head in a book. But growing up in Yazd in the 1970s and 80s, she’s at the center of a country in turmoil: the Shah is overthrown, Ayatollah Khomeini rises to power, and the first shots are fired in a bitter and protracted war with Iraq. Over the span of several years, Bahar finds daydreaming in her own fantasy world is the only way she can make sense of the pain and suffering warring humans inflict on one another. Breath was selected as the Iranian entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards.
Directed by Janvan Rambod (2017, 110 min.). Digital.
The long-awaited third feature by Javan Rambod (Melbourne) follows a young woman named Negar whose formerly wealthy family recently declared bankruptcy. When her father is found dead, the police call it a suicide—but Negar rejects this conclusion, insisting that her father was a happy man. She starts uncovering the truth through an unconventional investigation.
Directed by Ali Soozandeh (2017, 90 min.). Digital.
Artfully animated with a rotoscope technique, Tehran Taboo tells the interlocking stories of four residents of the Iranian metropolis. Pari is a young mother who resorts to prostitution to support her son while her husband is in jail. She divulges her secret to her pregnant neighbor Sara, who is dealing with struggles of her own: she wants to get a job so her family can move out of her in-laws’ house, but her husband insists that she stay home with the baby. Meanwhile, a young musician named Babak has a one-night stand with a girl who is about to get married and must come up with some fast cash to get her out of trouble. These characters are bound by a shared search for sexual and personal freedom in a city where tradition writes the rules.
When God Sleeps
Directed by Till Schauder (2017, 88 min.). Digital.
When God Sleeps tells the story of Iranian musician Shahin Najafi, who is forced into hiding after hardline clerics issue a fatwa for his death, incensed by a rap song that focuses on the oppression of women, sexism, and human rights abuses. As Najafi juggles a budding romance in Cologne, far from loved ones, with a professional career that may ultimately cost him his life, he spars with bandmates who are ambivalent about the risks posed by his high profile, and battles German police who refuse to see the death threat on his head as a legitimate danger. With camerawork that underlines the intimate aspect of this film, When God Sleeps bears witness to the life of an outspoken artist defying powerful men intent on silencing him.
Directed by Abbas Kiarostami (2017, 120 min.). Digital.
The last film by master director Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry, Certified Copy) consists of twenty-four still images that have been expanded into live-action tableaux, creating a series of mesmerizing vignettes.
Now in its 24th year, MFA Film presents a vibrant slate of films from emerging and established contemporary Iranian filmmakers. The Boston Festival of Films from Iran will be held at the MFA January 4—17. Tickets may be purchased starting December 21, online at www.mfa.org/film, by calling the MFA Ticketing Line at 800.440.6975, or in person at any MFA ticket desk. Tickets are $9 for MFA members, $11 for nonmembers, $5 for students at local universities. The films will screen in the MFA’s Remis Auditorium. Those who wish to see three or more films in a calendar month can save by purchasing a 3-film pass.