A Respectable Family

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[Editor’s Note: One of the greatest perks of living in a cinematic hub like Toronto is the large number of festivals and retrospectives that run all year long. TIFF, of course, is the parent festival and the organization’s year-around activities are the prime destination for any cinephile living in this city, but the smaller festivals offer their own share of pleasures. This year saw the inaugural edition of Scarborough Film Festival, founded by Sergei Petrov, whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing from a few years back when we crossed paths somewhere along the TIFF hierarchy. The festival, located at the beautiful Fox theatre along the seaside, southeastern edge of Toronto, was a success by all measures and will surely grow into a landmark summer event as years go by, since Scarborough’s culturally diverse demographic and the dreamy locale that hosts the festival provide the perfect platform for a rising festival slightly removed from the frenzy of downtown.]

Scarborough Film Festival’s closing piece was a film from Iran, which felt like a real blessing, given the relative lack of imports from Iranian cinema today. It’s a film called A Respectable Family, by director Masoud Bakhshi. Bakhshi’s first film, Tehran Has No More Pomegranates! has found something of a cult following among Iranian cinephiles so I was quite happy to catch up with his work here. All the more so when the jury announced prior to the screening that the Bakhshi was the runner-up for the festival’s best director prize.

A Respectable Family tells the story of Arash (Babak Hamidian), a young Iranian university professor who has spent the last 22 years of his life serving the academia in Europe. Upon receiving an invitation from the University of Shiraz in his native city, Arash heads back home to spend a year as a guest professor; but Iran’s many political upheavals have created an entirely different atmosphere from the one he’d left behind. Yet, it isn’t his unfamiliarity with the academic system or the city of Shiraz at large that discomforts him the most; it’s his dysfunctional family, ravaged by decades of betrayal and war.

Arash’s father, an ostensibly pious man who provided people with food during the Iran-Iraq conflict, had actually committed one of the greatest crimes during that war: hoarding. The minimal amount of resources he provided to the people in need paled in comparison with what he hid in his storage to sell for magnified prices. His personal life was no less tainted than his social one – he had been married prior to his communion with Arash’s mother (played by two of my favorite Iranian actresses, a young Behnaz Jafari and an older Ahu Kheradmand), though the marriages had been kept secret from both wives. Arash, as a result, had two brothers: a half brother called Jafar (Mehran Ahmadi) from his father’s previous marriage and a blood brother who has been killed in the war after his father had persuaded him to join the forces. Arash’s mother, blaming her husband not just for cheating, but for losing their son to war, had shunned the man and chosen to live the rest of her life alone and on a very minimal income.

This is the chilly family atmosphere Arash finds himself in upon his return, with a decidedly ostracized mother living in Shiraz, a dying father he has no desire to see and Jafar’s family in Tehran. To further complicate things, Jafar’s wife is Arash’s childhood sweetheart, now transformed into a submissively religious woman who suffers freakishly from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Director Masoud Bakhshi does a terrific job of highlighting the contrasts in the way each family member’s lifestyle has evolved over the years. One family is a microcosm of a society with prominent ideological discords, though Bakhshi’s visual symbolism is often too pronounced to convey this message with any graceful subtlety. And yet, this is a window with a perfect view into the paradoxes of modern Iranian society.

This is an environment where the woman who vehemently opposes her son’s presence in the country’s defense of its borders is the one who cares most about the well-being of Iranian people. The man whose face bears the mark of years of religious practice, Jafar, is the one whose frauds fund his business adventures in Dubai and Malaysia. This is an environment in which the four members of the same family can each belong to a different sect; where Jafar’s son (Hamed, played by Mehrdad Sedighian) can be so sly to embezzle his father of the money he has embezzles from people himself, and a mother so obediently devout to the point of complete voicelessness can raise a daughter who stands up to the men and nurtures dreams of studying abroad. It is in its terse and unsettling dissection of these familial and social tensions that the film’s most resonant moments develop.

There is a scene in which Arash goes to visit his lawyer to discuss his father’s inheritance and an offer Jafar has presented him and his mother. Throughout the film, Bakhshi sends us conflicting signals about the veracity of the lawyer’s claims against Jafar’s, but Arash seems to be on the side of his lawyer, not the half brother. Upon arriving at his office, he finds the door locked, cemented and taped off by the police, though a small hole in the door reveals an office covered with papers and a broken computer screen. Arash inquires from the neighboring office and is told that the lawyer and his wife died in sleep the night before because of a gas pipe leak in their house. These leaks are a sadly common affair in the older areas of Tehran, but the audience is left wondering if the man’s unfortunate fate wasn’t planned for him by external forces. This aura of uncertainty, and unnecessary politicization of every social and financial interaction is the most poignant and authentic achievement of the film.

At the centre of A Respectable Family, there is Babak Hamidian, whose resume of mostly strong performances has been rather limited to ill-fated highbrow productions like Bahman Farmanara’s ruthlessly censored Familiar Soil. Hamidian is a blank slate here, unto whom the audience is welcomed to project distrust, disinterest and several layers of pent-up frustration. His style of subdued expressiveness is a perfect fit for Arash’s confused encounter with the new Iran, his apathetic view of his father and his quiet disregard for the academic bureaucracy. His pivotal performance isn’t quite the best in the film, however. The two women who play his mother at different stages of her life are the standout performers. As the mother he meets after 22 years, Ahu Kheradmand performs a hybrid of the long suffering wife and the supportive mother with such poise that we forget just many different spins we’ve seen on both of those tired cliches. Kheradmand, herself, has previously played another variation of this character in Asghar Farhadi’s exquisite Beautiful City; while her performance in this film doesn’t quite reach the same heights, she’s sufficiently strong as to make this a unique creation.

The best performance in the film, by a country mile, is Behnaz Jafari’s short appearance as the younger mother during flashbacks to Arash’s childhood during the war. Jafari, quite possibly Iran’s single most underrated actress, is best known to the non-Iranian audience as the central figure in Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards, though for my money, her best performances came in the TV series Red Dust and one of my all time Iranian films, A House Built on Water, incidentally directed by Bahman Farmanara. She’s on familiar turf here, playing a strong woman in a society that doesn’t approve of her ability to live a successfully independent life, but her resilience justifies the route on which she and Arash find themselves later in life. Her defiance fills the audience with a mixture of heartache and admiration, and that’s the highest praise that can be given to a performance that could have settled for only one of those responses.

The sequences that contain Behnaz Jafari’s performance are undoubtedly the highlight of the film, not just because of her performance, but also because they offer a worthy depiction of wartime Iran. In stark contrast to the film’s portrayal of modern day Iran, Bakhshi subverts the audience’s expectations by depoliticizing the war. This isn’t a conflict between opposing governments or Islamic sects. This isn’t about sanctifying Iranian soldiers. It doesn’t carry a universal message about the horrors of war. This is strictly about what it was like to live in a specific place at a specific time. It’s about how people lived and how the war made them behave. Bakhshi earns the license for such earnest observations by setting up those sequences from Arash’s child perspective, and the objective, opinion-free effort pays off handsomely.

A Respectable Family is a major departure for Bakhshi, who is effectively making his first feature film here after two independent documentaries – I say “effectively” because one can make a case for Tehran Has No More Pomegranates! as a fiction hybrid. He has maintained his keen eye for Iranian history but has proven to have a deft hand at adding emotional depth to his social commentary as well. This is perhaps too small a film, or possibly even too “Iranian” a film to boost his international profile, but in an industry that is becoming increasingly depleted of promising talents, he is certainly a director to watch.

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