Telling Stories Under All Circumstances

in 74th Venice International Film Festival

by Viktor Palák

Looking at the endeavours of prolific Iranian filmmakers undertaken abroad, one cannot miss how their aesthetics struggled in a different milieu, whether we think of Abbás Kiarostamí’s Copie conforme (2010) or Asghar Farhadi’s Le passé (2013). The story of Alireza Khatami’s Oblivion Verses (Los Versos del Olvido) is an altogether different one.

The Iranian-born filmmaker has been gathering experiences at various talent campuses (including Cinefondation Residency and Berlinale Talents), has also been an avid film buff (he has spoken of film reviews as one source of his knowledge) and a short film director. He now debuts with his first feature, arguably the best first film screened at the 74 th Venice Film Festival (including Xavier Legrand’s Jusqu’à la garde, the only debut competing for the Golden Lion.)

Oblivion Verses opens with a Paul Celan quote and from that moment on maintains a strong highbrow aesthetic often referencing magical realism. The story follows an elderly caretaker at a remote morgue. Starring the Spanish actor Juan Margallo (a veteran known for his roles in Víctor Erice’s and Jaime Rosales’ movies), the film draws significant attention through its mysterious protagonist – a man who seems to have a brilliant memory (except for names) and knows when to demonstrate it.

He thoroughly handles his daily duties – maybe due to his meticulous nature, maybe just routinely – though possibly pointlessly as the morgue is soon to be closed. His routines are, however, to be disturbed when the body of a unknown young woman is brought by a local militia-member.

The film’s powerful fatalistic and elegiac mood is further stressed by the director’s confident handling of the overall form, carefully interjecting magical moments into the otherwise down-to- earth depiction of things we generally don’t pay attention to or prefer to forget. Even though the film is a coproduction between Chile and three European countries, the film successfully avoids the impending traps of an international pudding, emerging instead as a complex portrait of an enigmatic character, whose Sisyphus struggle is easy to relate to, no matter where we come from.

The film’s subtlety might resemble that of (for example) Semih Kaplanoglu, but nevertheless represents a decisive first step into features by a long-time film fan and now also an extremely promising filmmaker. “The world is gone, I must carry you,” the opening quote says, with Alireza Khatami adding that there is a story behind each grave, behind each body – and reminding us that forgetting this fact (or ignoring these stories) is a very dangerous path to take.

Edited by Neil Young