A family recovers on the road in Morteza Farshbaf's Mourning (2011)
The feature debut of Kiarostami protégé Morteza Farshbaf, Mourning is the gentle and affecting tale of Arshia (Amir Hossein Maleki), a young boy whose parents disappear in the foreboding hours of dusk, never to be heard from again. The film opens on a frame flooded with darkness; the inky streams of night obscuring Arshia's outline as he retreats into the safety of his blankets. His parents bicker loudly downstairs, their argument seemingly spurred by an off-hand remark taken the wrong way. Their quarrel builds to a furious climax resulting in both parents storming out of the house, owned by relatives Kamran (Kiomars Giti) and Sharareh (Sharareh Pasha), who are both deaf. The couple's departure will be more lasting than anyone could have imaged, as news arrives in the morning of their death. Kamran and Sharareh decide not to tell Arshia, informing him that his parents have headed off early. A trip ensues to return the boy home...
Iranian cinema experienced something of a resurgence in the early 1990's, and at its heart was Kiarostami, whose own driving drama Ten (2002) explored the road through a series of loosely connected vignettes. Farshbaf's film also resembles an Argentinean drama playing at LFF this year, the underwhelming Las Acacias (Giorgelli, 2011), about a mute truck driver (Germán de Silva) who falls in love while crossing the border to Buenos Aries. What makes Mourning unique, at least from a dramatic standpoint, is the fact that its main characters communicate entirely through sign language, expressing emotion with their hands and through facial gestures. This forces actors Giti and Pasha - who are a real-life couple - to be more suggestive with their (limited) physicality, and the audience is tasked with observing them closely. It's an interesting dynamic for the cinema to adopt, but Farshbaf's confident camerawork (his early compositions are beautiful) ensures that his story has scope beyond the car's hermetic enclosure.
For the first ten minutes Farshbaf's camera operates exclusively in wide shots, observing the landscape as Kamran's car navigates its winding roads. The soundscape is entirely empty, save for the feint sound of wind blowing through blades of grass and the car's wheels kicking up dirt and stones. Subtitles roll underneath the images, leaving the audience to imagine the interior of the car, which is often framed like a tableau, and kept static for extended periods of time. There is a sense of mystery to the film at this point. Arshia's parents, voiced by Sahar Dolatshahi and Peyman Moaadi, are never visualized on-screen, not even by photograph. They are left to the audience as memory; two people fighting in the dead of night. Arshia's troubled face, which is rarely observed in close-up, suggests that this event is not unusual, and lines of dialogue subtly suggest that the couple were fracturing. The film is structured something like a jigsaw, but its bigger picture still won't be clear by the end. Would you want it to be?
One of the things I really loved about Farshbaf's film were its frequent diversions from the set path, such as a moment where Kamran accidentally drives past the spot of Arshia's parents' car accident, visualized by trembling flames in a distant tunnel. Another scene finds the car breaking down, and Kamran wandering off to seek help. He manages to hail somebody down, and then attempts to communicate where exactly his car is stuck. In a moment of beautifully observed comedy Kamran mimes a hill, a gesture his driver struggles to comprehend. "Are they deaf", he enquires, after discovering there are two other people waiting with the stranded vehicle. Kamran nods, misunderstanding, for Arshia is not deaf. "Oh dear", the driver sighs. With the simplest of gestures Farshbaf not only crafts a touching scene of two people lost in translation, but also a winning blend of physical and written comedy; it's perfectly judged.
A fascinating take on the road movie, Mourning also offers a refreshing examination of loss, and is my pick for the hidden gem of London's 2011 festival. Actually, it's one of the very best films of the year, and I really hope somebody picks it up for distribution soon. Farshbaf is an exciting new voice in Iranian cinema, and I suspect his career will be an important one to follow over the next decade...
This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.