If Iranian directors work under constant scrutiny, they seem to invite the audience to watch their films with the same focused, laserlike attention. Attention to detail isn’t just a matter of dressing the set or making pretty pictures. It has ethical implications.
In “Mourning,” the debut film of Morteza Farshbaf (a protege of the director Abbas Kiarostami), a Coke bottle becomes an essential but enigmatic plot point. At least four scenes in this haunting film, which will be screened at the Freer Gallery on Feb. 12, relate to the bottle before it is used in a small act of sabotage. Awareness of the bottle puts the viewer into the position of the film’s quietly observant central character, a young boy who is watching his future play out through the sign language used by his aunt and uncle.
The apartment in which Farhadi’s film unfolds is also rich in data. And it is entirely constructed. He moved walls and rearranged doors to create a space. A reproduction of a famous painting by Andrew Wyeth is seen fleetingly several times, along with an image of an American Indian. It is a carefully fabricated place that recalls traditional culture, modernity and the mix of worlds that each character lives in.
The point was ultimately not so much about anthropological information as estrangement. He said he wanted to show “a strangeness to the space.” Although Farhadi said that the attention to detail and domesticity in Iranian film probably is the residue of Iranian cinema’s long-standing fascination with Italian neorealism, the films of directors such as Vittorio De Sica, his film is operating on another level. His constructed world — especially images of glass and transparency — demands attention, just as his elaborate plot demands attention. But the more attentive one is, the more ambiguous (and less transparent) the film becomes. Detail ultimately drives uncertainty, contributing to the open-ended quality of the drama. It offers a simple ethical lesson: To observe the world closely will make you less confident in your judgment, less dogmatic.
Although politics affects everything about Iranian cinema, “A Separation” isn’t an overtly political film. It doesn’t have, in the leaden manner of Hollywood, any kind of message. But it affirms one of the deepest truths of cinema as art: that to watch a film closely can save us from ourselves.