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Controversial Persian film package is follow up to Berlin 62

by Alex Deleon

On the heels of the 2012 Berlinale, forming a kind of coda to the busy week preceding, four unusual pictures from Iran were presented in this extra special Persian package, one each evening starting Sunday, at the Babylon Theater in Rosa Luxemburg Square. 

The Babylon located just west of Alexander Platz in what used to be Communist East Berlin, is one of the oldest movie theaters in Berlin and is now a protected architectural monument. It is also one of the regular Berlin film festival venues used mostly for special screenings.  This series entitled "Iran Cinema Kontrovers" was presented by an entity known as the 'Persian Culture Forum' which is actually the brain child of a pair of young people with a special interest in Iran and in improving lines of communication between Iran and the western world. Shehrezad Najmabadi  and Max Hoerner, a German who has visited Iran many times. According to Shehrezad, who was born in Tehran but raised here in Berlin, the goal in mind was to introduce films not of the "arty" variety that are canonized in film festivals (Kiarostami, et al) but rather a selection of "normal" films popular back home which reflect average Iranian tastes and interests.  Since religion plays a much larger role in daily Iranian life than here in Germany two of the four films (Solomon, and Holy Maria) were of explicit religious context -- embacing a kind of "crossover" (if you will...) with Christianity. One was a secular tale set in the Iranian here and now (So Near, Yet so Far) and one, 'The Watery Silk Road' was, of all things, a sea-faring picture replete with pirates and primitive savages (who all speak perfect Persian) set back in days of yore when Persia was first seeking to establish trade with China. Buckle your swashes for this one. There's also a bit of King Kong and the Queen of Siam in there ...

The films were:
Saint Mary (Persian: Saint Mariam: مریم مقدس‎), a film from the Islamic Republic of Iran which describes the life of Mary, mother of Jesus, from the Koranic, not the Christian biblical point of view.  In this version Mary was supposed to have been born as a prophet but when she turned out to be the wrong sex she was taken into the holy temple as a young maiden under the guardianship of the Righteous character Zakaria and raised there until ready to give birth herself to the True Prophet, Jesus.  In Islam Jesus,though also highly respected, is not considered to be the son of God, but merely one of the Five Great Prophets, the last of which was, of course, Mohamed.  Moreover, in Islamic belief Jesus was not crucified but transported directly to Heaven from whence he shall in due time return along with the Twelfth Imam (according to accepted ETC Iranian Shiite tradition).

Perhaps the biggest difference in the Islamic view is that Holy Mary had no husband, so there is no Joseph in the film. 

The audience appeared to be composed mostly of religious minded Iranian immigrants, predominantly women with properly scarf covered heads. In the Q&A which followed the film one of the few Germans in the audience asked about the absence of any reference to Joseph and was informed that in the orthodox Koranic telling of the tale no husband gets into the picture. Different strokes for different Belief Systems ...

The actress who plays 'Meriam' (or Mary) in the film, Shabnam Gholani -- 22 at the time of filming -- was present for the post film discussion along with director Shahriar Bahrani. Ms. Gholani is now 34 but still looks almost as young --and pretty -- as she did in the movie.

"The Kingdom of Solomon" (Molk-r Soleyman) is an Iranian religious/historical film of 2010 also directed by Shahriar Bahrani who made Saint Mary earlier. The Kingdom of Solomon was set to be released internationally on November 2010 after screening in Iran, but due to some technicalities its global release was delayed. The film tells the life story of Prophet Solomon, King of the Israelites. It is mostly based on the Islamic accounts of Solomon's prophetic life extracted from the Holy Qur'an but it also draws upon parallels found in some Jewish texts.

"Rahe abi-ye Abrisham" (The Silk Road on the Sea)-- فیلم راه آبی ابریش
The Silk Road known to history was anarduous overland route from China to Europe via the deserts of central Asia. First exploredby Marco Polo it became the main trade route between the Orient -- notably China and its wealth of silk -- and the West, while Iran --then Persia -- lay squarely across the middle of the route. However, since Persia also had sea ports Persian maritime adventurers were among the first to explore maritime passages to the shores of silk rich China, hence the origins of this film --a piece of ancient history in which Iranians still take pride today.  
The Maritime Silk Road (Persian: راه آبي ابريشم) is an Iranian movie released in 2010, about a man called Soleiman Siraf who, according to historical documents, was the first sailor to cross the Indian Ocean to China. His route was then called the maritime Silk Road and many merchants took that route to get their merchandise to China. One of the passengers in this film, the handsome hero of the piece, Shazan Ibn-Yusuf, is a young man who keeps a log of the voyage andeventually takesover the captaincy of the ship over a surly crew while  protecting a mysterious female passenger who is fatally attractive in true romantic action style. This movie makes the most of the material in fashioning what looks like a thirties Hollywood swashnuckler, models of sailing ships in long shots, war paint covered pirates, sea battles with fireball catapults instead of cannon, and all that kind of stuff --mixed with exotic elephanteria and primitive evil savages on an island cut off from the world. One for the Persian film books if nothing else, and lots of fun. Not all Iranian films are so dour and pessimistic.

The opening film on Sunday night, by far the best of the lot and the only one with a contemporary setting, was "Kheili Dour, Kheili Nazdik" (So Near and yet so Far), 2005,directed by Sayyed Reza Mir-Karimi.  A middle-aged neurosurgeon (played by the charismatic actor Masoud Rayegany), comes back to Teheran on the eve of the Persian New Year after a long stay in the west to spend the holidays with his teenage son, an avid student of astronomy. You can see that he feels a little guilty about having spent so much time away from his family and he is bearing an expensive telescope as a gift for the estranged boy. He is received with great respect by his medical colleagues but soon finds out to his great dismay that his son is suffering from a terminal brain tumor. The doctor, now desperate to reach out to his neglected son, finds that the boy has gone off to a village in the desert to join a group carrying out astronomical observations, and has turned off his mobile phone. In these opening scenes we see modern high rise office buildings and freeways choked with traffic - modern Teheran looks a lot like Los Angeles, but now it becomes a road movie through the desert outback beyond the city.

The doctor gets into his luxurious late model Mercedes sedan and sets out for the village where he hopes to find his son. Along the way he picks up a stranded villager dressed in traditional garb who seems to be some kind of wandering medicine man. The doctor calls his passenger "Hajj" meaning one who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca, but he is in fact not a Hajj, and the man in cloak and Turban addresses the doctor as "Engineer". A doctor is, of course, not an engineer, but this is not their only misunderstanding for the two men are worlds apart in their views of the world and their conversation in this long section of the film is a dissertation on he gigantic gap between traditional Iran of the villages and modern Iran of the capital. All this is played out against a game of verbal confusion between modern astronomy and ancient astrology.

When the doctor finally gets to the dusty village in the middle of a desert with other-worldly rock formations, he finds that his son has moved on to an abandoned mine where the observation of the heavens will be even better. From there he pushes on even further out into the desert only to run out of gas and is then beset by a raging sandstorm. Taking refuge inside the car he falls asleep and wakes up to find himself buried alive in his own Mercedes. This last section of the film is truly agonizing, almost unbearable. From a picture of galaxies in an astronomy book we get the title of the film - these galaxies are so far away yet they are close compared to others. The repentant father is now so close to rejoining his dying son, but ...

Just when all hope seems lost a thump is heard from above, the sand is pushed away and a hand comes in through the sunroof of the car. We hear the boys voice -"father!" -and father's faltering hand reaches up to make a finger to finger contact obviously meant to recall the famous image of Michelangelo's God reaching down to Adam. 

Paternal alienation, trial and last minute redemption, and along the way a panorama of Iranian life from the most modern to the most traditional with absolutely spectacular desert photography and a panoply of sharply drawn characters representing all aspects of life in Iran.  an extremely powerful piece of work and a landmark of the new Iranian cinema - one in which a major character, the dying boy, is never actually seen in the film ... although we repeatedly hear his recorded voice on a cellphone.  
Seyyed Reza Mir-Karimi (born 1966) is a middle generation director/writer/producer and "So near, so Far" was his third directed film. It was submitted to the Oscars in the foreign language category for 2005 but was passed over at the time. However, 2012 may turn out to be Iran's breakthrough year in Hollywood as last year's Berlin Golden Bear winner, "A Separation" ( جدایی نادر از سیمین‎ Jodái-e Náder az Simin, "The separation of Nader from Simin") is not only up for a best Foreign Language Oscar but seems to have the inside track for such recognition.

"Separation" director Ashghad Farhadi was on the Berlin Jury here last week and significantly presented the Jury Prize Silver Bear to Hungarian director Bence Fliegauf at the closing ceremony on Sunday.



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Berlin 2019: The dailies from the Berlin Film Festival brought to you by our team of festival ambassadors. Vanessa McMahon, Alex Deleon, Laurie Gordon, Lindsay Bellinger and Bruno Chatelin...
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