Then, something extraordinary happens, as the camera pulls back to inform us that all is not what it seems. That’s just the first of myriad revelatory moments that Panahi orchestrates with his characteristic skill in a story that doubles and splits off, at one moment becoming something akin to a Persian folk tale, at another a commentary on moviemaking on par with “Day for Night.” Panahi plays a version of himself as a director forced to stay in Iran by the Iranian authorities, and thus put in the bizarre position of working with his cast and crew remotely, via choppy internet. Meanwhile, he has decided to move from Tehran to a remote village near the Turkish border, where his celebrity and political notoriety make him a figure of both fascination and quietly skewering condescension.
Panahi plays the urban-rural divide for Kafkaesque absurdism, as he becomes embroiled in an outlandish misunderstanding having to do with a photograph he may or may not have taken. The thing is, Panahi is never not filming, even if he has to enlist a neighbor to record an engagement ceremony at a nearby river. Always keep the camera in front of you, he advises the newly minted auteur, as good advice as any for an art form that demands commitment bordering on obsession.
“No Bears” would be thoroughly engaging simply as a wryly funny fish-out-of-water story, with some diverting film-within-a-film metatext thrown in for thoughtful measure. But as Panahi’s stories mirror and merge, his deeper observations come into sobering and ultimately deeply moving focus. The title of “No Bears” is the punchline of a sequence having to do with the stories we tell ourselves for reassurance, only to hem ourselves in with fear, mistrust and internalized arbitrary boundaries. Even though Panahi’s treatment at the hands of Iranian authorities is referred to mostly obliquely, it informs every inch of physical and psychic space in Panahi’s cramped, primitive rental. The fact that “No Bears” premiered at Venice just before Panahi was sent to Evin Prison in July adds another layer of poignancy to a work of art that epitomizes how, in the most skilled and judicious hands, allegory and allusion can make the most devastatingly pointed political statements. (Panahi was released from prison earlier this month; his case is scheduled to be reviewed in March.)
And a work of art “No Bears” is. Despite the simplicity and clarity of its storytelling, this is a film of surpassing sophistication, from its graceful camera work (Panahi favors long, subtly bravura takes) to its virtually invisible editing, which knits geographically separate stories together in a way that makes their meanings cumulatively clear: Everyone is trying to get in or get out, with varying degrees of success, either performatively asking for permission to enter someone’s home, in the case of the villagers who hound Panahi for his alleged transgression, or pointedly refusing to do so, in the case of the young emigres in love. As for the filmmaker himself — both Panahi and the version of himself that he’s playing — he seems to embody ambivalence, simultaneously pulled away from authoritarian censorship and oppression and into the world of global cinema, pushed back to the country where he feels compelled to bear witness.
That moral tug of war animates a film that bursts with vibrancy, humor and Panahi’s signature brand of wry, unfailingly compassionate humanism. At one point in “No Bears,” he critiques a scene he just filmed and notes that a certain camera movement resulted in an idle frame. There are no such lapses in “No Bears,” wherein every moment has not just purpose, but captivating beauty. It’s no less gratifying for being utterly unsurprising that Jafar Panahi has, once again, made a film worthy of his own gently exacting standards.
Unrated. At the AFI Silver. Contains smoking and some mature themes. In Farsi, Azerbaijani and Turkish with subtitles. 107 minutes.