Iranian director Bahman Farmanara whose Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine won the Special Jury Grand Prize at the Montreal World Film Festival in 2000, now returns with A Little Kiss (Yek Bous-e Kouchoulou), a poetic reflection on what it means to be a writer of the older generation in present day Iran.
A Little Kiss is not the most optimistic of films. But it is a meditation – largely personal, yet with clear social connotations – on a host of themes that trouble the sensitive mind: exile, aging, dying, memory, censorship, fractured relationships between generations and a pride in a country’s cultural legacy.
Esmail Shebli, a well-known writer, is tired and dying. He lives alone, suffers from lung cancer which he refuses defiantly to treat, and is attended to lovingly and regularly by his grandson. One night, an old friend, Sa’adi, who is also a writer and who had moved to Geneva 38 years ago turns up unexpectedly at Shebli’s house. Sa’adi is in the thick of an emotional maelstrom. He had abandoned his family and quit his country (before the Islamic revolution) because the regime, he believed, would not allow him the creative freedom he desired. He has never returned since. In the meantime, his son has committed suicide and his estranged daughter has had three failed marriages. His wife has moved to the north of Iran where his son is buried. And Sa’adi himself, struck by Alzheimer’s, is bitter about what he regards as a wasted career.
The pasts of the two men are revealed slowly as they talk and pick the threads of their lives. The film’s gentle rhythm is in consonance with the slowed-down pace of their fading years. Sa’adi is afraid he has forgotten too much of his homeland. A part of the film takes us on a journey to the natural sights and sounds of Iran as Shebli and Sa’adi reconnect nostalgically with their youth and reminisce on the magnificence of their country’s heritage. Both are visited by the Angel of Death. And we know instinctively that their end is but a footfall away.
Indeed, life is a muddle if not a mess. Was the escapist Sa’adi any happier as an exile? No, he wasn’t. His creative juices have dried up. The new generation has no memory of his earlier writings, a yawning gap separates him from his daughter whom he encounters once in the film, and he himself is urgently aware of his physical and mental deterioration. At first view, his son’s recent suicide may have no direct bearing on his flight from Iran. But Sa’adi is nabbed by guilt – he had never uttered a single word of encouragement to this talented photographer son.
Death envelopes the two aged men in its arms. Shebli’s passing away is gentle, in the lap of nature, while visiting a forest of the two friends he knew in their childhood. It is a fitting death of an old man who had not forsaken his country (his silence all these years, he claims is not a sign of resignation but of wisdom) but stayed on to write and earn fame.
Sa’adi death on the other hand comes at a bitter point in the film. As he visits his son’s grave, he meets his wife who has also come to this lonely spot on the hills, bearing flowers. In a final scathing moment of confrontation, she accuses him of gross indifference that caused the son’s death. “We were bleeding here when you were drinking whiskey on Lake Geneva…take your corpse to Switzerland. It is of no use here.” It is a charged image that brings together the threads of his personal conduct and Iran’s political life.
A Little Kiss is superbly scripted, its dialogue not weighed down by the profundities that emerge from a lifetime’s experience. On the contrary, they blossom naturally from little recollections and exchanges, from the light yet meaningful caresses of the past, from the brilliant acting by the two lead actors – Reza Kianian and Jamshid Mashayekhi – now silver-haired and declining, from their gestures and the world of sadness in their eyes. The film’s narrative is so constructed that their cultural journey back in time and into the present is devoid of any artifice. It is simply their desire to see the beauties of their land one more time before they depart.
Refined and restrained, A Little Kiss is a low key film cast in an introspective mode, imperceptibly playing out life’s emotional riches. Its complex mesh of thought and sentiment is never maudlin. Rather, these emerge dense and strong for having left much unsaid, for having let cinematic techniques – use of silence, choice of cast and brilliance of direction – do the talking. The result is in an enduring tale of age, homeland and self-discovery.