Best Iranian Films بهترین فیلم از ایران
15 Essential Films For An Introduction To Iranian Cinema
By Kimberley Kenobi
"خانه سیاه است" ("The House is Black") (1963). Forough Farrokhzad
Iranian Cinema is a rich and diverse cinema that has been in existence since the 1930s amidst oppressive regimes, censorship and even in the face of exile. The history of film as an art form in Iran dates back to the pioneering days of cinema when the first movie theatre opened in Tehran in 1904.
Film was less than ten years old at the time and many Iranians flocked to cinemas to watch these primitive masterpieces. However, it would be another 25 years before Iran would develop its own national cinema, a cinema of morality, humanity, abandon and integrity.
Starting with the opening of the first film school in 1925, an Iranian national cinema quickly began to develop. Since then, cinema has served as an ambassador for Iran, the heart and soul of a country marred by years of instability.
As a result Iranian national cinema has become an engaging, chaotic, soulful and poignant cinema. It remains a true testament to the resilience and industrious nature of the Iranian people and serves as a veracious voice through which Iran can tells its varied and compelling stories.
This is a list of the 15 essential Iranian films of all time.
1. خانه سیاه است (The House is Black) (Forough Farrokhzad, 1963)
A short form documentary about life in a leper colony, The House is Black is a film that directly inspired the new wave cinema of post-revolutionary Iran.
Set in the Behkadeh Raji colony, The House is Black deals with the human condition amidst pain and suffering while exalting the joys found in the simpler things in life; two girls brushing each other’s hair, a man dancing barefoot in the street, kids playing make believe with a broom – the banality of life made beautiful through the eyes of this first time filmmaker. These may be lepers we are watching onscreen but they are also humans with lives to live.
The film is narrated by director Farrokhzad who reads passages from the Bible, Koran and her own writings while juxtaposing images to create meaning. The story, you could say, is told in the montage. And while this documentary utilises a large quantity of artifice, as many documentaries do, it does not negate in any way the truth of the suffering of the lepers who inhabit the colony.
Farrokhzad herself was a poet, widely regarded as the best female Persian poet who ever lived, due to her unabashed writings on desire, love and the female perspective. She wrote about being a woman at a time when Persian literature was dominated by male voices. Sadly, Farrokhzad died tragically at the age of 32 following a car accident in Tehran. The House is Black remains her only film.
This film, directed by Ebrahim Golestan begins with a taxi driver realising that the beautiful young stranger who just got out of his cab has left a baby in the backseat. The rest of the film revolves around him and his girlfriend trying to find this woman.
A dark and moving piece, the film deals with the moral dilemmas and social anxieties we all face in life and ends with a large dose of social realism as the baby leads the duo on a journey into self- discovery.
Comparisons to Fellini and Antonioni abound when discussing this film however; The Brick and The Mirror remains a much more radical and progressive version of neo-realism in its handling of storytelling and convention which are both, more or less, discarded by Golestan (much like the baby is in the movie).
You never feel as if you are watching a work of fiction with this film, instead you feel as if you are watching the lives of real people unfold before your eyes. Golestan’s social conscious, his use of visual commentary and the emotional honesty, brutal as it might be at times, lends power to the film.
Haunting and liberal in its approach and depiction of gender and society, The Brick and The Mirror helped define the future of Iranian cinema and is regarded by many as one of the most important Iranian films of all time. Also, note the opening sequence of the film with the cabbie driving around Tehran… Look familiar Marty?
3. گاو (The Cow) (Daryush Mehrjui, 1969)
Any review you read of The Cow will call it a ‘landmark in Iranian cinema’ so I’ll begin by saying; The Cow is a landmark in Iranian cinema. It is considered as such for many reasons, one of the most poignant being the critical acclaim and attention this film brought to the cinema of Iran. It has been said that The Cow was the first Iranian film to grab the attention of international critics, paving the way for Iranian filmmakers of the impending new wave.
The Cow, based on the novel ‘The Mourners of Bayal’ by Gh Saedi tells the story of a man named Hassan who adores his pet cow. When the cow is found dead by the villagers while Hassan is away a decision is made to cover up the death in order to save Hassan from the pain of loss. What follows is a decent into madness where Hassan comes to believe he is the cow.
As with previous films on this list, The Cow was heavily influenced by the Italian neo-realist movement. As Mehrjui himself said in an interview in 1997; he wanted to show the reality of his life including all the ‘ugliness’, a founding tenement of the neo-realist movement.
The Cow examines Iranian rural life in 1969 and the titular cow serves as a catalyst for the action. Having said that, the film is not really about a cow, it’s about Hassan and the village. Their collective fears, their xenophobic tendencies and the bond they share based, in part, on deceit and lies. The cow serves as a metaphor. A metaphor for what you might ask? Well, I’ll leave that up to you to decide but in this reader’s opinion the cow represents a loss of purpose or identity.
By contrasting the plight of one man (Hassan) with an entire community (the villagers) Mehrjui presents to the viewer an analogy of old and ‘new’ Iran. Released at the peak of the Shah’s propaganda campaign in 1969 The Cow encapsulates the collective fears of many Iranians, the fear of progression in the face of tradition.
Hassan represents many nameless people who fear they will not have a purpose in this ‘new’ Iran. In his mind, Hassan is nobody without his cow. He has no sense of identity or purpose and as a result he spirals into madness.
The tragedy of the film lies in Hassan’s inability to accept a new role for himself without his cow. He is not able to accept the loss of his cow, i.e. his purpose in life and in the end he, like his beloved cow, winds up dead. An important film not just in the pantheon of Iranian cinema but in cinematic history – The Cow is a must-see for film fans the world over.
4. طبیعت بیجان (Still Life) (Sohrab Shahid-Saless, 1974)
Still Life is an immensely subtle film that has been described as a work of visual poetry thanks in part to its use of repetition. The film presents for the viewer a glimpse into the life of an ageing railway signalman named Mohammad (and his wife) whose job is to open and close a railway crossing a few times each day. They live in a very rural and isolated area of Iran that could accurately be called ‘Nowhereville’.
A cyclical film that handles time in a non-chronological manner, Still Life relies heavily on the use of long/wide shots and real-time storytelling to take us on a journey. Entire sequences, uninterrupted, of Mohammad walking to and from the station or Mohammad and his wife eating their dinner allow the viewer to tag along with Mohammad as he lives these very banal moments in life. In doing so we become part of Mohammad’s routine for a brief period of time, just like the trains that run through his station.
Singular in his approach, the director creates a world where each day becomes indistinguishable from the day before or the day after. By choosing to present time in this manner Saless challenges traditional filmic conventions by doing away with typical narrative devices and, instead, applying a much more experimental approach to the film.
Very reminiscent of Ozu in its style and overall aesthetic, Still Life is a tremendous work of art by one of Iran’s greatest, yet internationally lesser known filmmakers. Go watch it now.
5. دونده (The Runner) (Amir Naderi, 1985)
Inspired by director Amir Naderi’s own childhood experiences The Runner is a film about the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity.
Amiro is an impoverished young boy living in the Persian Gulf Port city of Abadan, an impoverished city built around the world’s richest oil refinery. He happily works odd jobs shining shoes and selling water until one day an off-hand comment by a magazine vendor forces Amiro to realise that he must go to school and learn to read if he truly wants to better his life.
Often compared to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and very much in the style of Italian neo-realism, The Runner is the first post-revolution Iranian film to attract an international audience. Claimed by many to have set the artistic tone for the future of Iranian cinema, The Runner uses montage, repetition and juxtaposition to reveal to audiences Amiro’s deepest desires.
By contrasting images of Amiro running through the city with images of racing trains and planes Naderi creates a visual link between Amiro’s ambitions and his reality. His aspirations become manifest in the editing creating a truly lyrical piece of filmmaking.
Featuring an outstanding performance by the young lead, Majid Niroumand, The Runner is an optimistic and life-affirming film that speaks to audiences the world over, regardless of ethnicity, class or religion.
6. بايسيكلران (The Cyclist) (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1987)
The Cyclist is the retelling of a story from director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s childhood. Nasim is an Afghan refugee who works as a well-digger in Iran. His wife is confined to the hospital and Nasim must find a way to pay for her medical treatment.
After a few failed, and legally-questionable schemes Nasim, a former endurance cycling champion, has run out of options until he meets a circus promoter who offers him an opportunity to make the money he needs. The promoter offers to pay Nasim to take on an endurance challenge whereby he rides his bike for seven consecutive days in front of a public audience who will be placing bets on how long he will last.
Rife with social commentary and scathing in its depiction of poverty, The Cyclist is a triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity story similar to The Runner. Makhmalbaf uses repetition to evoke a sense of life in the film. The repetition of Nasim riding in circles makes us think of our own daily routines in which we strive to provide for the ones that we love.
This metaphor of our shared existence shatters boundaries in a world increasingly devastated by poverty, foreclosures, unemployment and a pronounced lack of suitable health care, The Cyclist remains an incredibly relevant film the world over, perhaps even more so today than when it was released in 1987.
7. کلوزآپ ، نمای نزدیک (Close Up) (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)
In Kiarostami’s revolutionary docu-fiction hybrid Close Up, the main ‘character’ Hossein Sabzian, has been arrested for attempted fraud after impersonating acclaimed Iranian auteur Mohsen Makhmalbaf. During a meeting with Kiarostami, Sabzian asks him to pass a message on to Mr Makhmalbaf, the message is as follows: “Tell him, The Cyclist is a part of me”.
Based on a series of real events Close Up, directed by the incomparable Abbas Kiarostami (who halted production on a different project in order to make Close Up) takes us on a journey into the heart of a man so in love with the artifice of cinema, the cinema of his people, the cinema of his country that he takes on the persona of his idol in an attempt to gain attention from those who would otherwise ignore him.
While pretending to be Makhmalbaf, Sabzian was able to convince a family that he wanted them to feature in his next film, even casting their sons as actors and requesting to use their home as the set, all the while defrauding the family out of money. When he got found out, Sabzian was arrested and sent to trial. Enter Abbas Kiarostami and his camera.
Now, there is no need to go into any further detail about the plot of this film, it is truly a film that one must see in order to appreciate but it would be remiss of me to not mention a very poignant sequence in which Kiarostami brings Sabzian and Makhmalbaf together for the first time.
Shot from a great distance, across several lanes of traffic with Makhmalbaf wearing a microphone that cuts out intermittently Sabzian embraces Makhmalbaf upon meeting him. He cries like a child as he clings to this man, the one he has been impersonating. After a few moments Makhmalbaf asks Sabzian “do you prefer to be Makhmalbaf?” to which Sabzian replies: “I’m tired of being me.”
The two eventually ride off together on a motorbike, the sound continues to cut in and out (was this intentional or not on behalf of Kiarostami, we’ll never know) until eventually it goes all together leaving the two men alone as we watch them from a shared distance, in silence, through cracked windshields and side mirrors.
A benevolent and powerful film about identity, humanity and cinema created by one of the most unique filmmakers the world has ever seen.
8. نون و گلدون (A Moment of Innocence) [aka Bread and Flower Pot] (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1996)
In the 1970s, at a student protest, Mohsen Makhmalbaf stabbed a policeman. Twenty years later he tracked down that policeman in order to make a film about what happened to both of them on that day.
Rather than using the staid documentary format, and knowing that is very difficult to accurately document the past (people tend to remember incidents in relation to how they themselves were affected as opposed to how they actually happened), Makhmalbaf decided to tell this unique story through a recreation of the events of that fateful day, including footage of the production itself.
This questioning of the artifice of cinema and deconstruction of the filmmaking process is a tenement of Iranian New Wave cinema or post-revolutionary cinema.
A complex and engaging work about memory, time and guilt this very personal film drifts between fact and fiction in the same way our memory does. That is until the final scene when the police officer, out of frustration and anger directs the actor playing his younger self to ‘re-write history’ by recreating the event from the past completely differently to the way either man remembered it.
In the end it is Makhmalbaf himself who changes history by making this fictional reading of a true story. The freeze frame that ends A Moment of Innocence instantly draws comparisons to The 400 Blows, but this freeze frame of the bread and the flowers (hence the original title) hiding the knife which will be used to stab the policeman is far more dangerous than that of Antoine Doinel and his lack of closure.
9. طعم گیلاس (Taste of Cherry) (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997)
Jean-Luc Godard once said that cinema began with DW Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami. When I initially sent in my list of the best Iranian films of all time it was heavy on the Kiarostami and cutting his contribution down to just two or three films was incredibly difficult. Taste of Cherry only just made the cut in lieu of Where is the Friend’s House? and The Wind Will Carry Us and this is why…
Kiarostami reportedly spent eight years writing the script for Taste of Cherry, which is reflected in the authenticity of the film and its characters, namely our protagonist Mr Badii who spends the course of the film searching for someone who will bury him after he kills himself.
Minimalist and austere, the film keeps the viewers at a distance through its use of long shots. We remain engaged as even when the camera is miles above Mr Badii in his car, the dialogue permeates the scene as if we are sitting in the car alongside him. As a result, our engagement with the film is uninterrupted. Kiarostami also applies visual clues in lieu of exposition. This helps humanise Mr Badii for the audience and evokes empathy.
For example; he rarely shares the screen with other characters – this can be read as a representation of the singularity of his search. Further, the lack of women in the film can be read as a reflection of the lack of love in Mr Badii’s life. Everything we need to know about this quiet man is there to be read visually which retains an economy of dialogue throughout. This is intellectual filmmaking at its finest.
The film also features a bizarre twist at the end, which I can’t bring myself to give away. Subtle, provocative and ambiguous, Taste of Cherry, in all its minimalist glory, has earned its spot in the Criterion Collection and on the list of best films ever made.
10. سیب (The Apple) (Samira Makhmalbaf, 1998)
The first film of Samira Makhmalbaf, daughter of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, The Apple is a haunting work based on the true story of two sisters who were kept confined to their home, by their troubled parents for 12 years.
The film follows as the two girls are returned home after being taken into protective custody by social services. As with most new wave output the film questions the convergence of reality and artifice. Instead of making a documentary and portraying the girls as victims and their parents as monsters Makhmalbaf instead recreates events using the twins and their parents. As a result we are presented with a lament on gender equality as opposed to a sensationalist cry for help.
Makhmalbaf herself has said that the apple is a symbol for life and uses the motif throughout the film as the girls search for the evasive apples they crave, the life they have been denied. By allowing us to become enthusiastic participants in their journey we are able to share the joys of their fledgling experiences in the world for the first time. Authentic and artistic, The Apple is a stunning and confident film. You wouldn’t believe it was made by a 17 year old girl.
In Majid Majidi’s fourth film we meet Mohammed, an eight year old boy who is blind. He lives with his father Hashem, two sisters and grandmother in a small village. The story follows the plight of both Mohammed and Hashem, who is hoping to remarry following the death of his wife.
Hashem has concerns that his new wife’s family will think that having a blind son is a bad omen so he attempts to keep Mohammed’s blindness a secret. In desperation, Hashem sends Mohammed to live with a blind carpenter who agrees to train him as his apprentice. In the ensuing drama Mohammed’s grandmother dies and the films finale leaves us questioning whether Mohammed himself will live or die.
As compelling as his previous film, Children of Heaven which was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 1998 Academy Awards, The Colour of Paradise is pre-occupied with the often strained relationship between father and son. The film culminates in a moment of wretched suffering, regret, pain and revelation as Hashem lies on the banks of the river cradling his child, the burden he wished for so long to be rid of.
Compared by many to Federico Fellini’s La Strada, partially due to how the film ends, The Colour of Paradise is a rich and textured portrait of family life. It features endearing performances by the whole cast and is a powerhouse of emotion that touches to the very core of who we are as humans.
12. روزی که زن شدم (The Day I Became a Woman) (Marzieh Meshkini, 2000)
A film about three generations of women suffering at the hands of oppression and lamenting freedom, The Day I Became a Woman unfolds slowly, captivating viewers in its rich tapestry.
Following three intersecting stories we meet Havva, Ahoo and Hoora on the same beach, on the same day. Havva is a young girl on the cusp of losing her childhood, and by proxy her freedom. With the advent of her ninth birthday looming over her, Havva decides to spend one last day being a carefree child at the beach playing with her friend before she is confined to a life under a chador.
Ahoo is a strong-willed young bride who comes into conflict with her husband and other men from her village when she refuses to obey his orders. She wistfully challenges the male dominated society by engaging in a bike race with the other women along the beach where Havva plays. Our third character, Hoora has come to the end of her life and, unlike her younger counterparts, has rediscovered her freedom albeit somewhat too late.
Lyrical in its approach and opulent in its aesthetic, The Day I Became a Woman is a heart warming tale of three women who represent three stages in the life of a daughter, wife and mother – the shared female experience converging on the beach for a brief moment in time. It is a simple and important film that further demonstrates the need and the value of a strong female voice in cinema.
13. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)
Ten, which was included in the BFI Modern Classics range in 2005, is a groundbreaking film that presents ten different conversations between a driver and her passengers to cinema audiences. The minimalist screenplay was inspired, in part, by a story about a psychiatrist who, when her offices were shut down, decided to conduct her sessions with patients in her car.
In presenting the viewer with a varied group of ‘characters’ and shooting the action via a stationary camera affixed to the dashboard without direction from Kiarostami, the film is able to communicate in ten very unique and authentic voices, an engaging analysis of modern day life in Tehran. In the words of Kiarostami himself, in the documentary Ten on 10, the film is about ‘existence which goes beyond that of a man and a woman’.
Shot entirely in digital, Ten is a personal journey for Kiarostami. After much of the footage for Taste of Cherry was ruined in the processing lab he was forced to re-shoot, where possible, and decided to do so in digital. As a result Kiarostami found that people reacted much differently to the digi cam than they did to the 35mm camera. In this moment of revelation Ten was born.
Ten is considered by many to be a reinvention of the road movie. It does so by doing away with traditional production methods and confining the action to a singular space telling a simple, unscripted story.
14. لاکپشتها هم پرواز میکنند (Turtles Can Fly) (Bahman Gobadi, 2004)
Bahman Gobadi began his film career working on The Wind Will Carry Us with Abbas Kiarostami. His first feature film, A Time for Drunken Horses won the Camera D’or at Cannes in 2000. With his third feature, Turtles Can Fly, Gobadi once again tackled the subject of child refugees caught up in the violence of war.
Using the turtle as a metaphor for the Kurdish diaspora, the film challenges our notions of disaffection in war torn countries. The Kurds are a people who, under the weight of war, migration and genocide have managed to carve out an existence for themselves on the border between Turkey and Iraq.
Following a young boy known as Satellite who leads a gang of children, many of whom are missing limbs as a result of the numerous landmines on the border, who work together to clear the landmines and re-sell them to the UN. In a nutshell – Turtles Can Fly is a sharp and disturbing dose of reality for those of us concerned with our firstworldproblems.
While we in the west experienced this war via our television screens, safe in our homes with our loved ones by our side, these children experience it first hand, in all its brutality and viciousness. They represent the nameless, thousands of damaged children who, desperate to survive, eke out a hellish existence for themselves. Their punishment for simply being born in a region ravaged by a war they don’t want or understand.
Turtles Can fly is a testament to the resilience of these brave children and their undying hope to one day live in peace.
15. جدایی نادر از سیمین (A Separation) (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
Upon winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012, A Separation realised the dream of Iranian cinema which was eloquently captured in the speech of director Asghar Farhadi. He said that many Iranians around the world are very happy in this moment ‘not because of an important award or a film or a filmmaker but because the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here in terms of its glorious culture’.
A Separation is a riveting drama about a woman who wants to leave Iran in order to find better opportunities for her daughter. Her husband refuses to go because of his father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, requires constant care. In this decision the film turns into a much more complex and compelling story than that of the dissolution of a marriage.
Instead, it becomes a study of separation and not just between man and wife, but parent and child, creditor and debtor, employer and employee, truth and justice. A stark film in which there are no winners and no happy ending and no single person to blame. Rather, the villain of the piece, should you wish to refer to it as such, is institutional.
An accomplished and assured work, A Separation perfectly encapsulates the power of Iranian cinema and has ushered in a new generation of filmmakers who, like their predecessors, will continue to challenge and astound the rest of the world with their glorious culture.
The availability of state funding means Iranian filmmakers can develop styles free from the constraints of traditional commercial filmmaking. As a result, the films being made in Iran continue to blur the line between fiction and documentary. This makes for a much more dynamic storytelling experience for viewers and is one of the reasons why Iranian cinema continues to receive critical acclaim the world over.
Author bio: Kimberly is a Visiting Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Wolverhampton. She runs a popular Film & TV Quiz, has a dog named Akira & enjoys playing Pac-Man. You can check out his blog: http://kimberlykenobi.tumblr.com/ and find him on Twitter @KimberlyKenobi.
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