The Fat Man Sang

in 42nd Rotterdam International Film Festival

by Ronald Rovers

Brazenly self-conscious Modest Reception subverts Kiarostami’s beloved car rides by turning its naturalism inside out. A man and a woman drive a Lexus through the rocky Iranian countryside with a trunk full of cash, handing it out to whoever crosses their path. Surprisingly, but then again, not surprisingly at all most are reluctant to accept. That much good fortune spells trouble, they suspect. Incapable of understanding or accepting the inhabitants’ stubborn behaviour, tensions rise between the man and woman, at which point the film wanders into increasingly dark and grim territory. Crucially, they eventually get out of the car, out of the secluded, protective space that in the past offered Iranian filmmakers a chance to film outdoors without being seen. Out of the car — that is, more rebellious, more defiant of the ideology that dominates the public sphere.

Maybe or maybe not Haghighi felt inspired by Thomas Friedman’s 1999 book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, even though the olive tree is not one of Iran’s many national symbols. The only fruit given that honour is the pomegranate, maddeningly also a source of national pride in neighbouring Armenia through its defining role in Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova). Friedman posits — I quote Wikipedia — that the world is currently undergoing two struggles: the drive for prosperity and development, symbolised by the Lexus, and the desire to retain identity and traditions, symbolised by the olive tree. Some stuff has happened in the ensuing years, complicating other stuff and so forth, but Friedman’s stuff is still relevant. Probably more so.

There’s a dissatisfying resoluteness in the film’s final act that obscures its potential but Haghighi still delivers a playful — building on Iran’s cinema history — and provocative piece of work.

Even further removed from Iran’s celebrated neorealism was Mohammad Shirvani’s Fat Shaker, which was awarded one of the tree main Tiger prizes in the Rotterdam competition. Evoking something Mohammed Rasoulof said in an interview during the 2012 edition of the festival, that Iran ‘is like an alcoholic father’, it presents scenes from an abusive father-son relationship, all the while stubbornly refusing to provide backstory. Drunk — you could also say brain damaged — the fat man takes his frustrations out on his deaf-mute son. At the same time the story moves over a second axis with a third, female character, adding gender to the mix. Moving the characters in and out of focus Shirvani offers a distorted journey of pain, with characters condemned to suffer each other’s presence. It offers no easy interpretation, though radical websites supposedly dubbed the film anti-Iranian. It actively resists its cinematic roots by adopting a much more — one could say — cosmopolitan subversion of surrealism, both in sound and image. But it’ll be interesting to see if anyone’s viewing of the film will surpass the country’s political context. It’s hard not to think of the father as the national patriarch, oppressing his subjects with whatever misuse of power he can think of. Whatever else the film does or doesn’t do in terms of awards and international distribution and whatever else you think of it, Shirvani and actor Levon Haftvan — also featuring in Majid Barzegar’s Parviz (Parviz) — created one of the most memorable characters in recent Iranian cinema.

While the concept of low budget filmmaking sometimes feels worn out and exhausted — specifically Mumblecore’s neo-slacker writing, acting, storytelling and directing — these films offer inspiring examples of it. Minimal means and a restrictive artistic climate ensured economic storytelling and didn’t stop the directors from creating poignant work — they hardly ever do — even though Modest Reception could have done with less polishing and Fat Shaker with some more.

Edited by Carmen Gray