Iranian film begins with a stranded couple in a broken-down truck, becomes a wonder of dramatic depth
The two leaders of Iranian film, Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, have spent a good deal of their time training and helping young filmmakers get started. Makhmalbaf has his own film school, and his wife and daughter have released extraordinary films under his tutelage. Kiarostami has helped out new filmmakers like Jafar Panahi by contributing story ideas and taking "story" credit on films like "The White Balloon" and the recent "Crimson Gold."
Less familiar in the US, filmmaker Ali Reza Raisian also gets a little help from Kiarostami for his latest film, "The Deserted Station."
It could be that Kiarostami has the magical touch. His films often consist of simple ideas that can be easily explained in a one or two-sentence pitch, and yet when you sit down to them, they grow much more complex and much more truthful than expected.
"The Deserted Station" follows the adventures of an Iranian couple, a photographer husband (Nezam Manouchehri) and a schoolteacher wife (Leila Hatami). The wife has retired due to some unknown sickness or weariness, and the couple now makes a cross-country journey by truck to Tehran.
When their truck breaks down, the husband walks to the nearest town, a dismal little place devoid of men; they are all off working in the cities. One man, Feizollah (Mehran Rajabi) stays behind to take charge of the local school. He's also a mechanic and a farmer. Feizollah accompanies the husband to help fix the abandoned truck while the wife temporarily takes over the class.
It's a simple enough setup, but Raisian packs so much into it that multiple viewings may be necessary. When the couple's truck breaks down, it's because they swerved to avoid hitting a deer or some kind of fleet-footed beast. But everyone tells them that no deer live anywhere near there. At the same time, a pregnant sheep wails in pain in a room underneath the schoolhouse; she's been in labor for two days. When the lamb comes in the middle of the day, it's stillborn.
One of the children in the school is a deformed little girl who can't walk on her own and must be carried. Another of the children can't come to class without shirking his duties in his family's cornfield. Many of these details circle around back to issues of birth and death and the fear surrounding both.
We come to know so much about this little village in a ludicrously short amount of time. The photographer learns all about the jack-of-all-trades Feizollah and his utterly selfless care for the well-being of his village (he does admit from time to time that he's looking for good karma points for the afterlife), while the wife becomes attached to all the little children and each of their funny little faults.
Credit should go to both Kiarostami and Raisian for another powerful, beautiful female character in an industry that very seldom recognizes such things. When we first meet the wife, she's asleep in the truck. Her husband lovingly photographs her and tells her how beautiful she is. Later we come to see her patience, intelligence and care for the schoolchildren. Even her nightmares and her deepest fears come to light during a hide-and-seek game aboard an abandoned train. Usually if women are the centerpiece of an Iranian film, it's to underline their suffering. But with Kiarostami's recent "Ten" and this new film, things appear to be changing for the better.
Kiarostami has always cooked up powerfully affecting endings for his works, and "The Deserted Station" is no exception. When it comes time to leave the village, the husband and wife attempt to drive off, but the children do something extraordinary. I can't describe it without taking its force away.
It's a near-great film, but I'm not sure if "The Deserted Station" quite attains greatness. Raisian's mise-en-scene doesn't quite have the rhythmic punch that Kiarostami or Panahi have and his use of space and terrain isn't quite as polished or poetic. (Consider Kiarostami's brilliant use of these elements to enhance the emotional impact of "Where Is the Friend's Home?" and "The Wind Will Carry Us.")