In recent years, Iranian cinema has often been associated with Italian neorealism with its evocative, non-professional actors and direct representations of everyday life. But Behrooz Afkhami’s new film, The River’s End (Gavkhouni), suggests a much more European and formally adventurous mold that merges dreams and reality in a compelling meditation on the grieving process. That it’s also charming and enlivened with knowing humor makes it especially rewarding viewing. I managed to see it as part of UCLA Film and Television Archive’s ongoing festival of contemporary Iranian cinema last night, and immediately began hoping for a chance to see it again in order to plumb its depths with greater insight.
The film is based on an influential Iranian novel by Jafar Modaress Sadeghi and follows the thoughts and actions of a young man in his mid-20s whose father has recently passed away. The film includes the protagonist’s first person narration from beginning to end as he endures persistent dreams and recollections of his father, pressure from his extended family to settle down and get married, and a general listlessness in life that compels him to move from Isfahan to Tehran and live with other eccentric bachelors. The former city is the site of his youth as well as the enigmatic Zayandehrood river that dead ends in a marsh. The river becomes a complex symbol for the protagonist’s feelings toward his father and his own difficult life journey and unknown destination.
The film expertly utilizes two brave aesthetic decisions: the Cinemascope widescreen frame (which is rare for such a personal story), and more impressively, much of the film is shot using a subjective camera, a technique that has occasionally been experimented with (1946’s Lady in the Lake was a notable Hollywood attempt), but never fully accomplished with dramatic success. Afkhami, however, achieves it remarkable well, and combined with the quiet, cadenced rhythms of the narrator’s continuous voice, the technique is perfectly immersive.
The narration gives the film an unusually literate feel which no doubt accents the story’s origins, but also makes the film a notable example of literary adaptation. There is much to glean here in the way the narration and subjective camera enrich and contradict one another, and provide a surprisingly revelatory experience in tandem.
The film also features many memorable characters and performances, several of which are women who exhibit an individuality and dramatic tension somewhat rare in Iranian cinema. As the film alternates between present and past, the narrator’s father (played by Ezzatolah Entezami, famous for his roles in The Cow, Hamoun, and Once Upon a Time, Cinema) is charmingly presented as an idiosyncratic individual, full of mischief and understated wisdom. The narrator’s feelings toward his father are wonderfully ambiguous, and convey the confusion that can often follow in the wake of a death in a troubled relationship.
It’s a quiet, intelligent, and formally inspired film that deserves much greater exposure. It played at Cannes last year and won the NETPAC award for the Promotion of Asian Cinema in Brisbane, but it appears to only be popping up in sporadic venues around the US this year. Don’t miss it.