ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

SFIFF 53 review: In Iranian Mohammad Rasoulof’s disturbing new film “The White Meadows,” allegory abounds as villagers cry their tears into bottles…what exactly are we watching?

The White Meadows (Keshtzar haye sepid)(Iran, 2009, 93 min)

In Mohammad Rasoulof's new film "The White Meadows" people living on the remote salt islands of Iran's Lake Urmia cry their tears into bottles. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society.

Mohammad Rasoulof’s “The White Meadows,” set in the Iran’s remote Lake Urmia region near Azerbaijan, is a surreal poetic fable that addresses the messy topics of sin, guilt, judgment and confession.  In fact, the story has such a strong Biblical feel to it that it’s difficult to discern the Muslim factor but there are several veiled references to contemporary Iran.  The story concerns an old boatman Rahmat (Hasan Pourshirazi) who travels among the desolate salt islands and waterways of Iran’s Lake Urmia (the third–largest saltwater lake in the world) and ceremoniously collects people’s tears in a glass vial and mysteriously takes them away, only to later pour them into the sea.  What the precise role of this man is, we never know, but he is entrusted to hear secrets.  As people unburden their sorrows to him, somehow, they are cleansed.  It all sounds simple and beautiful but in Rasoulof’s world, this shaman is powerless to intervene or give advice against the vast injustices he encounters. 

Rasoulof, 37, from Shiraz, was recently among more than 100 prominent Iranian political figures and activists who were put on a mass trial in Tehran following the crackdown on opposition supporters claiming President Ahmadinejad fraudulently won the June 2009 election.  Rasoulof was imprisoned in March of this year and released March 18, 2010, just before the New Year holiday on March 21, 2010.  Despite his and other prominent Iranian filmmakers’ tricky relationship with the post-revolutionary powers that be, the Iranian film industry manages, under extreme repression, to produce over 60 films annually.  A rigorous vetting process entails censorship that begins with the script and follows a film through distribution.  The result is a rich set of low-budget films with an allegorical bend that offer some means of exploring social, political and religious codes within Muslim society.  “The White Meadows” carries on this tradition by offering a fable that can have as many real world applications as a poem–or–it can be taken as just as a story about strange people living in a strange land with stange customs.

The old boatman arrives to gather tears when tensions are most high—first, at a funeral for a young woman who has died suddenly and was buried in a mountain of preservative salt until he can transport her body off the island.  The male elders of the village mourn her but declare all is for the best because she was a temptress “to beautiful to live among us.”  Even the presence of her corpse on the island would cause men to dig her body up.   After collecting their tears, he takes her wrapped body off the island and then sneaks a forbidden peak.  He discovers that a fraud has been played out and that he is transporting a young boy Nassim (Younes Ghazali “Among the Clouds”) who intends to escape this bleak island life to find his father who also left the island.  An arrangement is made whereby the young man can accompany him by pretending to be his deaf and mute son. 

Remembering that tears turn into pearls, the boys steals a jar full while the old man sleeps and it is just a matter of time until he is caught.  They arrive next at an island where a young virgin is about to be cast out on a raft and offered as a bride to the sea, destiny unknown–the perfect metaphor for the unpredictable route that Iranian women travel.  Despite her mother’s pleadings, the old man does nothing to stop this act and the more tears that flow, the faster his vial fills.  Before the girl is carried off, the male elders certify publicly, one by one, that she is an undefiled virgin, worthy of sacrifice.  It is soon discovered that the boy has set out to rescue her but has been intercepted.  He is barbarically stoned to a bloody pulp by the village elders.  He survives but the old man proves to be more interested in protecting his position as confidant than in protecting the boy.  At this point, we glean another reference to contemporary Iran– a group of men in power are dictating the terms of societal behavior to their own advantage and ignoring universal moral rules.  

The next village is even more bazaar…inhabitants whisper their secrets into glass jars and then tightly cap the lids.  The crippled village dwarf (Omid Zare) is chosen to deliver these secrets to the fairies deep in a well before daylight.  With dozens of jars tied to his body, and carrying the symbolic weight of an entire village’s woes, he moves slowly through the crowd and down into the dark well.  When it is feared he will not make it in time, his rope is cut and he perishes.  This sacrifice allows the secrets of others to be assuaged but he leaves behind a young bride who will surely face a horrible future alone and ostracized.

In Mohammad Rasoulof's new film "The White Meadows," screening at SFIFF 53, a painter is punished for using red instead of blue paint for the sea. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society.

On the next island, a painter is buried up to his neck in sand and left to bake in the sun for the crime of painting the sea “red” instead of “blue.”  He refuses to alter his reality to avoid punishment and the tear gatherer transports him and the boy to an island penitentiary. And on it goes…the tension builds into a set of heart-piercing scenes and bizarre circumstances where ritual and senseless judgment, have more importance than compassion or real justice.  In the end, all is for not, as the tears collected so carefully are used to bath the feet of a dying man and then tossed into the sea.  As an allegory for contemporary Iran, a society pressured to empty its very soul and aware of the sad farce imposed upon it, this film does its work.  

Some viewers may be put off by the lack of clarity and slow meandering tempo of the film.  Those who can pace themselves and handle high levels of ambiguity will be mesmerized by images that are both picturesque and eerily disturbing.  Ebrahim Ghafouri’s camerawork makes the film—much is shot from a distance, capturing darkly clad and covered women moving across the barren salt flats with some close-ups that provide clues for elements that come full circle at the close of the film. The sound is handled simply but eloquently enhancing the sense of isolation in a remote setting.  Extemporaneous guttural wailing has haunting power.  On one level, this is an exceedingly simple film expressing a human dilemma that should be comprehensible to all but whose solution remains incomprehensible… this about sums up contemporary Iran.

Screens: Friday April 23, 6:30 PM, Kabuki Theatre, Saturday April 24, 9:30 PM, Kabuki Theatre, Sunday April 25, 8 PM, Pacific Film Archive

April 24, 2010 - Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , ,

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