Grave Humour

in 10th Geneva International Film Festival

by Ronald Bergan

In almost every film festival since the late 1980s, it has become a cliché among film festival goers that Iranian cinema is one of the most fascinating in the world, and that, as a colleague observed, remarked, ‘there is no such thing as an uninteresting Iranian film’. It is true that whenever one is on a jury where the selection of films is rather poor, it is the Iranian film in competition that has come to the rescue.

Yet, some critics, despite their admiration for Iranian films, have lately begun to voice some negative opinions: the style and themes are similar, there is now a typical Iranian ‘film festival’ product etc. While understanding that Iranian films can no longer be as exotic and fresh as they seemed originally, this is not because the quality has deteriorated but because Western critics have become more familiar with them and, as the saying goes, ‘familiarity breeds contempt.’

However, despite being limited by censorship and the constraints of an Islamic society, the variations within these limitations continue to astonish. Bitter Dream (Khabé Talkh), a first feature by 32-year-old Mohsen Amiryoussefi, is proof of this. The extremely original and potentially morbid subject is that of the profession of corpse washer. Apparently, there are special skills needed to wash and prepare a corpse for burial.

The director has taken the sacred subject of burial and turned it into a black comedy that is also a implicit attack on authoritarianism, a courageous thing to do in a country run by Ayatollahs. In this case, the martinet is Esfandiar, a stern old man who has been running the cemetery for over forty years. He washes the dead, and rules over his assistants with an iron fist. But he sees himself criticised by his helpers while watching a live television report. ‘Who’s in charge here?’ ‘Eh, well, Esfandiar’s the boss, but as he’s not around much, I’m the one who looks after things’. This infuriates Esfandiar, and he decides to take matter in hand. But he is later visited by Azreal, the angel of death, making him wonder who would wash his body when he died.

Each character (played brilliantly by non-professionals) is well defined, especially the boss, a frightening looking man with a wild beard, and a mischievous young man who steals clothes from dead bodies. Amiryoussefi not only uses television to satirise the programmes but as a clever narrative device allowing the characters to address the audience directly. Another example of the rich diversity of Iranian cinema, this time producing bitter laughs.

Ronald Bergan