If there is any country that regularly produces cinema that is both thought-provoking and beautiful, it is Iran. From old masters to newer auteurs, the films are considered a class apart.
And while Iranian films are internationally acclaimed at the Oscars, Cannes and Berlin film festivals—earlier only a select few could glimpse these gems. But with online offerings, Iranian cinema is now only a click away.
Yet what's most interesting about Iranian cinema is that it exists in a peculiar paradox of tension between the political and the artistic. All films are subject to strict censorship laws that must adhere to the Islamic Republic’s moral, social and religious codes. Women must be shown in a constant state of hijab, and physical intimacy is verboten.
But regardless of these restrictions, Iranian filmmakers do not shy away from exploring sensitive and nuanced social, cultural issues of all kinds; their remarkable ingenuity and creativity allows them to flourish despite the obstacles.
Within the smallest microcosm of a story lies a larger truth
Iranian films are often humanist social dramas that explore a seemingly minimalist storyline, but through the art of allusion, they are rich in political subtext.
The tension between religion and culture, as well as conformity and individual desire, creates a riveting viewing experience.
To be able to express emotions and create chemistry between the characters, Iranian filmmakers often lean on traditional elements such as a rich heritage of poetry and Sufi storytelling that combine allegory, and spiritual elements to circumvent social and cultural mores.
At times, the stories are told from a child’s perspective with the simplest of storylines. It is really a marvel how the most mundane event — returning a friend’s book, trying to buy a goldfish for Nowruz, losing a pair of shoes — turn it into a revelation of character, society and ourselves.
Blurring the line between fiction and non-fiction
While we pat ourselves on the back when introducing differently-abled characters on our screens, Iranian cinema has been doing this since they started making films.
These characters are at times the protagonists and often times just part of the fabric of the film and treated with gentleness, kindness and love and affection and very much a visible part of the community.
Another aspect of Iranian films that give them their unique realism is the blurring of lines between fiction and non-fiction and the use of professional as well as non-actors. Despite a rigid set of restrictions, Iranian actors give such nuanced performances whether in individual roles or with ensemble casts that leaves the audience completely involved in the outcome of their story.
What's more, the views of the crowded city of Tehran, the beauty of its countryside along with espying inner courtyards of characters homes lined with rich Persian carpets, their appealing dastakhwans and beautiful architecture and alleyways allow for a glimpse of a country we rarely get to see.
There is an additional spark of pleasure when we recognize a Farsi word and see similarities within each other’s traditions. All this gives us a window into their world while at the same time expanding our perspectives of Iranians and their joys and struggles which often mirror our own.
This is not, of course, to say that there aren’t problems. Iranian cinema is beset by issues of freedom of expression, patriarchy and towing the political and Islamic line. Women’s voices are not as well represented despite some very talented women filmmakers and actors.
For the uninitiated, however, you must know that these are not escapist films. The pace of the films is slow and yet, they are so captivating that you find yourself thinking deeply about them for days.
The list of films below is not exhaustive but meant as an entry point into the world of Iranian cinema.
In these confined times if we are fortunate enough to toggle between boredom and gratitude while people around us face crippling hunger and harrowing deaths, let us take a moment to recognize our privilege and through these viewings work on strengthening that often underdeveloped emotion — empathy.
The three great Iranian filmmakers who put Iranian cinema on the world map include Abbas Kirostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi.
Kirsoatami’s works Taste of Cherry, Through the Olive Trees, Where is the Friends’ House? are more abstract but have immense lyrical beauty, while Makhmalbaf’s films have a more philosophical feel. See The Cyclist, A Moment of Innocence and The Silence.
Panahi’s films mostly feature social and political critiques and he has had to pay a price for his views. Watch Taxi, The White Balloon and The Circle.
Asghar Farhadi is the talented writer-director known for his award-winning films A Separation and The Salesman.
His fine-tuned control over the script and the subtle shifts in perspectives of all the characters places you in their gut-wrenching moral conundrums. By evoking our empathy for all point of views, he really creates a more humanist cinema that calls for repeat viewing.
Additionally, watch his earlier work About Elly and Fireworks Wednesday.
Some newer films that create riveting cinema from the most mundane storylines are Ghasam (Swear), a story of a family travelling to Mashhad to testify in court about the death of their sister and how every step of their journey leads to increasing doubt.
Ide Asli (Main Idea) is the story of firms competing for tenders to win a construction contract.
Takhti is the story of Iran’s most popular wrestling champion and the director who must complete the project.
Women in cinema
Rakhsan Banietemad often called the First Lady of Iranian cinema has many prestigious films to her name.
Her work examines the social, economic issues in the country through a woman’s perspective. See Roosari Abi (The Blue Veiled) about a widower’s search for love.
Her daughter Baran Kowsari also features in many of her films such as Ghesse-ha (Tales), a film that revolves around the different lives and challenges of living in Iran.
Tahmineh Milani is a well know writer-director who often focusses a critical lens on the lives of women in Iran.
See Do Zan ( Two Women) which looks at the diverging ways tradition forces two friends into different lives, and Vakonesh Panjom (The Fifth Reaction), a story about a widow who’s fight for the custody of her children must endure legal, patriarchal and social injustices along the way.
Iranian drama serials are also a wonderful source of entertainment and provide a wide tableau of experiences from satire to historical dramas with a wonderful array of actors and performances.
Shahrzad is a fascinating Iranian period drama about a fractured love story set during the 1950s coup that overthrew the Masaddeq government. Its ability to tell a compelling story with historical, political and social ramifications with a critical lens at the patriarchy is a stunning achievement with some of the best acting all around.
Pedar follows a young rebellious girl who changes after she falls in love and marries her husband. His more traditional family welcomes and supports her while her parents develop an antagonistic relationship with her. Here father-in-law does everything he can to protect her and ends up being more of a father to her.
Hayoula (The Monster) directed by the acclaimed actor, director, creative artist Mehran Modiri is a searing social satire. It tells the story of a humble honest teacher whose life takes a 180-degree turn which leads him to become wealthy through ill-gotten gains. His other drama Ghahveye Talkh (Bitter Coffee) transports a man to the past and he becomes a royal favourite for his ability to predict the future.
Shahgoosh is a comedy which revolves around a police officer with big ears and the special talent to hear everything down the hall and into the street. This trait comes in handy to solve the murder case he has recently been assigned.
Here’s to discovering a whole new world or finding a new Farsi friend —I know I have!
Many thanks to Mariam Ispahani for her patience and contribution to this article.