The iranian cinema is much beloved of high-end critics and festival programmers. I don't know anybody else who gets all hot and bothered when word comes out about a new film by Abbas Kiarostami or Mohsen Makhmalbaf. I understand Iranian films' meta-cinematic appeal. They're from a country with almost no cinematic history, from a culture that resists, on religious grounds, the very idea of representation.
And, very importantly, Iran's films bear so little resemblance to Hollywood's that they can perform that time-honoured function of foreign cinema, that of a critical club with which to beat Hollywood product.
Foreign films have often had a big influence on Hollywood. The Italian neo-realists prompted any number of filmmakers to get out of the studios and into the streets. The French New Wave made American directors rethink style and narrative.
I don't know exactly what effect the Iranians might have, though. I can't see an American filmmaker pitching a movie where someone drives around brown hills for a couple of hours trying to get someone to help him commit suicide. With all their driving, Kiarostami's films qualify as action movies by Iranian standards.
One good joke about Iranian cinema asks how you can tell the difference between the films of Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf. If the characters are driving it's Kiarostami, but if they're walking it's Makhmalbaf. We can now extend that distinction to Makhmalbaf's daughter Samira, whose second film, Blackboards, opens this week. It premiered at Cannes 2000.
There's a lot of walking in this picture, the story of two itinerant teachers who wander around the northwestern corner of Iran -- the Kurdish area, near the Iraqi border -- toting their blackboards and looking for people to teach. Yes, they will teach for food.
One falls in with a group of barely adolescent boys working as mules, toting contraband across the boarder into Iraq. Another finds himself guiding an elderly group of Kurds to the border so they can cross into their homeland to die. Iranian border guards shoot at both groups.
The palette of the film ranges from a dark brownish yellow to a pale yellowish brown: the ground, the rocks, the water. Makhmalbaf may be using filters. One of the teachers is played by Bahman Ghobadi, who at roughly the same time directed A Time For Drunken Horses, about mules carrying contraband in the same area, and his film was spectacularly scenic.
Blackboards is about people trapped in a desperate cycle of poverty in a location that offers little relief and in a political system that basically wants to keep them there.
There's not much in the way of performance from the non-professional cast. I'm not sure if the problem is that Makhmalbaf can't direct actors, that her casting opportunities were extremely limited in northwestern Iran or that these performances come out of some specific Iranian acting style. In film after film from Iran, people stop and recite speeches from memory, or so it sounds to someone who speaks neither Farsi nor Kurdish.
Too often, I think, films about endurance fail to offer a chance for transcendence. Call me crass, but it's an unending diet of cinematic depression that makes me long for big, stupid, violent, explosion-laden movies.
BLACKBOARDS directed by Samira Makhmalbaf, written by Samira Makhmalbaf and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, produced by Mohamad Ahmadi, with Bahman Ghobadi, Said Mohamadi and Behnaz Jafari. 85 minutes. A Mongrel Media release. Opens Friday (January 17). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 71. Rating: NN