Theatre of the (Car) Interior
There I was, relaxing in the beer garden of a popular local hostelry with the blog's Anglo-Iranian Affairs correspondent, one of my wisest advisors. After the usual raking over of old work-related grievances, our attention turned to an imminent cinema trip.
'This will be the first film we've actually seen in Persian,' said Anglo-Iranian Affairs.
'Yes. Well, except for that one about two people sitting in a car, which you said didn't have a story.'
'Oh, yeah. That one.'
'Funnily enough,' I said brightly, 'the new film we're going to see is directed by the son of the guy who made that one.'
'Oh. That doesn't really inspire much confidence,' said Anglo-Iranian Affairs, looking a bit wary.
'Well, the trailer was funny.'
'What was in the trailer?'
'Er... mainly just four people sitting in a car. So it should be at least twice as good as the film his dad made.'
Strangely enough, not long after we actually went to see Panah Panahi's Hit the Road, I came across a piece which cogently argued that the People Sitting in a Car film is a distinctly and innately Iranian cinematic genre, in the same way that the Western is quintessentially American and the Bergfilm is inherently German. It's quite distinct from the American road movie, which to some extent is all about revelling in the expansiveness and beauty of the wide open spaces of the continental landscape. Rather than being about space, Iranian Sitting in a Car films are all about the possibilities of enclosure – mainly the possibility of being able to make a film in the first place, without the government's cultural watchdogs knowing what you're doing. (Any history of modern Iranian cinema would not be complete without various hair-raising accounts of people being obliged to secretly make films in their own front rooms, or smuggle the finished movies out of the country on USB sticks hidden inside cakes, and so on.)
Hit the Road begins innocuously enough, seemingly without any elements that could frighten the horses (or indeed the cultural watchdogs). A family are on a road-trip together in a borrowed car: the father (Hassan Madjooni) has broken his leg and is confined to the back seat, along with his slightly hyper eight-year-old son (Rayan Sarlak). The mother (Pantea Panahiha) is in the passenger seat, constantly fretting, which does not help the mood of their elder son (Amin Simiar), who is doing the driving.
The characters, their relationships, and indeed the situation they are in all emerge gradually and naturally as the film continues. Father seems laid-back enough, though a bit irritated (as are the others) by his precocious younger child; the elder son is quiet and withdrawn; Mother gets more and more stressed about something. She nearly panics when it looks like the car is being followed, and is furious when it turns out her youngest has defied instructions and brought a mobile phone along for the trip. Clearly, whatever the purpose of their trip is, they have reason to be nervous about it. It isn't until relatively late into the film that the truth finally becomes clear, by which point the film's implacable shift from comedy into poignant drama and maybe even tragedy is almost complete. At the same time, it's easy to understand why the Iranian state censors might get a bit prickly about this particular story.
It's hard to say more without spoiling the film – people talk very casually about spoilers these days, usually referring to particular plot points or other discrete moments. 'Patrick Stewart has a cameo' is an example of that sort of spoiler. The thing about a film like Hit the Road is that it is fundamentally about the gradual excavation of layers of family trauma and the relationships that have been impacted by this. The slow and oblique (and, it must be said, far from complete) revelation of what's actually going on is essential to the conception of the film, and so to casually reveal just where the family is going and why would be to fundamentally change the experience of watching Hit the Road.
I mean, it turns out that Hit the Road is a very politically conscious film, making a powerful (if oblique) criticism of the Iranian regime, but the fact that this element is largely left for the audience to work out for themselves really gives the film much of its power: it's also a very effective and engaging family drama – the antics of the nameless child serving to lighten what could have been a fairly heavy experience and also provide a contrast which makes the more affecting elements of the story even more powerful.
The child acting is exceptionally good, but then so is all the acting, especially from the parents. (There's also some impressive lip-synching in the various musical numbers which unexpectedly pop up now and then in the course of the film.) Perhaps there's some truth to the suggestion that it's always easier to be impressed by an actor who's completely unknown to you, but the performances here are utterly persuasive – these do seem like real people, completely plausible and rather endearing.
It does feel like a film made with one eye on an audience outside Iran – the mixture of comedy, drama, and political commentary seems intended to produce a film that will appeal beyond the usual subtitled ghetto (Anglo-Iranian Affairs commented on how many people were at the screening we attended; we ended up in the very front row as all the good seats were gone). References to films by Christopher Nolan and Stanley Kubrick are just the most overt sign that the director has been influenced by popular western cinema.
Nevertheless, this isn't quite the case of someone making a film in a foreign idiom simply to attract attention from the global critical establishment – there's something serious and authentic about this film which it shares with the other Iranian films I've seen in recent years. And it does feel like a genuine film rather than a piece of agitprop: the story is essentially about Iran today, but it's still a story for all of that, with well-drawn characters and a definite structure. We were both rather impressed by it. It didn't turn out to be quite the film we were expecting, but as noted, finding out what kind of film Hit the Road is is part of the pleasure of watching it. Suffice to say it is a quietly very impressive one.