When anyone asks which is the best country to turn to when looking for foreign language dramas, there is a reason why the answer is generally ‘Iran’. No one does ensemble, social, personal and family dramas the way Iranians do. The observations in Iranian films are far more nuanced, the emotions are more raw and the situations feel real rather than staged. Joining the pantheon of great Iranian films is Barf (Snow), which recently screened at the Mumbai Film Festival.
Directed by Mehdi Rahmani, Barf is a very Asghar Farhadi movie in terms of style and narrative, complete with a mystery driving forward the story. Barf leaves you with a massive emotional punch. Its principle theme asks you a very simple question – when your personal world comes crashing down, given a chance to escape into the comfort of detachment, would you do it? Or would you face the situation and its consequences? Both those scenarios are present in the film, and Rahmani invites you to ponder upon the subject matter with his wonderful little tale.
The youngest son of a wealthy and well-respected Vaziri family comes home from his military service on the eve of his sister’s engagement. Everything seems cheerful at home as his mother greets him with open arms. His sister is very excited about the engagement. His elder brother teases and bonds with him, just like old times.
But his homecoming doesn’t go exactly as planned. Beneath the smiling faces and the festive mood, there is an undercurrent of gloom wafting through the atmosphere. The father of the household isn’t home, and the mother hesitates to say where he’s disappeared. The elder brother seems to be making clandestine phone calls to someone and getting very nervous. The devastation comes down in full force as it turns out the family house has been seized by the government and the once affluent family is now penniless. Rahmani doesn’t just stop there, he piles on a series of other setbacks upon the situation. The sister reveals something of her own past. The elder brother is an emotional wreck. The younger brother too has something unfinished with the sister’s best friend. It’s a raging maelstrom of conflicts. As the day goes by the characters turn from the happy smiley faces to sullen ghosts. The bickering and bitterness escalates to nasty levels in some superbly staged scenes.
Although this is a drama, and most of the conflicts in the story are bitter, Rahmani somehow manages to inject black comedy into the film. The elder brother is a loser who has single handedly ruined the family’s wealth and the day. Yet he cracks self-deprecating jokes and the audience is bound to laugh along with him. The script itself is beautifully textured – every character has three dimensions, making the audience hate and then sympathize with them even when they’re train wrecks. The elder brother, for instance, ends up as a likable character even though he’s gotten everyone in a fine mess. He’s raised and paid for everything his siblings have done, so he questions why everyone has ganged up on him after making one bad decision. The film also seamlessly weaves in and out of comedy zone – the bell of the house ringing constantly is used as a running gag.
The entire film is water tight and memorable but two scenes in particular stand out. A divorced partner of one of the family members shows up. Even though he isn’t welcome at home, the family, because it is known for its courteousness, still has to treat the person as their guest, in the middle of their own ongoing nightmare. Later the bank personnel arrive to take over the house, and the mother of the family has to beg for an extension because it’s her daughter’s wedding. Both those scenes, like the rest of the film, could have easily come across as mawkish but they’re executed with the touch of surefooted mastery. They’re just two more instances where Rahmani’s film exudes tremendous emotional depth and philosophical range. Long after the credits roll the film will have you reflecting over the nature of abandonment and the consequences of choice. It’s the kind of stuff that makes one wish our own films were as well made as this one.
(First published in Firstpost)