Review: The First Lady of Iranian Cinema returns with dialogue-heavy ‘Tales’

VENICE – Known as the “First Lady of Iranian Cinema”, Iran's premier female director Rakhshan Bani-E'temad is a formidable chronicler of the day-to-day existence of Iranian people. Not a million miles removed from the outlook of the Dardennes brothers in Belgium or Ken Loach in the UK, she is concerned largely with so-called ordinary lives. “Tales (Ghesseha)” is a multistranded take on a dozen or so people's stories intersecting across a single city. Some characters are encountered once, never to return, others recur throughout, but it's not a film with a protagonist or supporting characters in the traditional sense; it's much more a slice of life/lives.

Indeed, “Tales” is almost an anthology film, and was initially conceived as a series of shorts. Using an ensemble of actors she has worked with before, we meet the characters (some of whom apparently appeared in earlier works, but I'm afraid I'm not an expert on her back catalogue) through a series of vignettes or short dialogues, and these strands are related, but discontinuous in terms of narrative. Background characters from one story frequently pop up later in their own little sketch, and off-screen characters we've already encountered are referred to in passing. Loose threads abound and resolutions are hard to come by.

Oddly, one work of fiction whose structure this closely resembles (though the cultural setting could hardly be more different) is the Pulitzer prize winning novel Olive Kitteridge, the HBO adaptation of which screens soon here at Venice. One more piece of fiction in this vein and we'll be able to declare it a theme of Venice 2014. (Not yet though — journalists need three examples before they can announce a spurious trend.)

The playwright Harold Pinter was once credited with (or accused of) having  “a tape-recorder for an ear”, a suggestion that, while probably intended kindly, actually does a disservice to the considerable art involved in crafting naturalistic dialogue. The same applies to Bani-E'temad, who brings an overheard quality to most of her stories – at their best, they shy away from the melodrama involved in some of the more dramatic sequences, and focus on the connective tissue that holds people and cities together.

It feels like Bani-E'temad is referencing her own background in documentary-making for Iranian television network IRIB in the framing character of a filmmaker we meet in the first and last scenes  of “Tales” and glimpse periodically throughout. He is apparently attempting to capture similar material to that actually presented in “Tales”, about various forms of corruption affecting people's lives. Unlike the all-seeing camera capturing the staged drama, we witness the filmmaker being constantly shut out of the places he wants to film – government offices, a pay dispute on a minibus, a women's refuge/clinic. That Bani-E'temad's actual camera is able to record fictionalized versions of what happens behind closed doors in these environments underscores the extent to which these are no-go areas for most real-world cameras, for a variety of reasons from the social to the political to the commercial. When was the last time you saw a film that ventured inside an Iranian women's refuge?

Once behind closed doors, certain scenes are a peculiar watch for a Western viewer in terms of working out how we feel about the characters, who are very much products of their own society (Bani-E'temad herself eschews the label of feminist). For example, in one scene, a drunk turns up at the women's refuge, calling for his wife Nargess (Atefeh Razavi) to come out and speak with him. She is terrified and tells the female supervisor that she doesn't want to see him because he beat her – that's why she left.

Incredibly, the supervisor tries persistently to persuade Nargess to go outside and speak with her drunken abusive husband. This approach isn't presented with any value judgements attached. A Western viewer will inevitably bring the standards of a Western women's refuge to the table at this juncture, and this supervisor is by those standards terrible at her job — the proper reaction would surely be to support the victim and not encourage her to meet with a potentially violent former partner.

It is not until the wife, whose face is covered in weeping sores as a result of being badly burned, blurts out that the injury was not the result of an oil tank exploding, as she had pretended, but of her husband throwing boiling water in her face, that the supervisor relents and stops insisting she meet with him. At that point, the wife runs out to see him anyway. It becomes clear that from the husband's point of view the supervisor is a liberal threat to the status quo – he insists proprietorially that Nargess is “my wife”.

Is the film itself judging the supervisor by the husband's standards, in which case she is probably a dangerously radical frontline feminist, or by more modern standards as a rather conservative person who is probably in the wrong line of work given her deference in problematic circumstances to the institution of marriage? Perhaps it isn't about judgement, but some effort must be made on the part of the viewer to negotiate the hurdles that cultural relativism repeatedly places in one's path in the course of negotiating this work. It probably goes without saying that it's hardly laugh a minute stuff.

There are comic moments, however. The excellent Peyman Moaadi (“A Separation”) grabs our attention and holds it throughout a standout scene that begins with a woman having recently slit her wrists and ends with an amusingly bittersweet half-acknowledged courtship. At its best, “Tales” offers sketches that tell us more about a person's life in ten minutes than another film might tell us in 90. Less involving sections are more like being trapped on public transport in the middle of someone else's argument.

A knottily constructed piece of cinema with perhaps not quite as much staying power as one would have hoped, “Tales” is nevertheless an understandable programming choice for the festival. Bani-E'temad brings fresh insight into the contemporary mores of a much-misunderstood modern society and, even more importantly, shines a light on the less privileged strata within that society. Her reserve is balanced by an implicit compassion that makes up for a lack of film-making fireworks, while the formal gambit of the interlocking vignettes pays dividends in achieving an immerse real-time sense of being lost in the belly of a contemporary urban sprawl.

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