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Iranian film noir casts spell in Cannes

An Iranian film noir about an academic who returns home after two decades in the West to a family and country he no longer recognises made a splash at the Cannes festival this week

AFP, Tuesday 22 May 2012
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"A Respectable Family", the feature film debut of the 39-year-old Tehran documentary maker Massoud Bakhshi, is rooted in the director's own experiences as a teenager growing up during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88.

"It's not an autobiographical film, but it was inspired by real-life events from the lives of people around me," the director told AFP after a screening in Cannes' Directors' Fornight sidebar section. "I'm talking about a generation that lived through the Iran-Iraq war, a war that changed the destiny of my generation."

The picture tells the story of Arash, whose family breaks up when his teenaged brother is killed in the conflict, as his violent father commits his grief-stricken mother to an asylum and brings home a second wife and her son.

The action opens in contemporary Iran, where Arash, a college professor, is invited home after 22 years in Paris to teach in the southwestern city of Shiraz where his elderly mother now lives. While there, he is contacted by his step-brother's son, who convinces him to renew ties with his dying father.

But when his father dies, and money comes into the equation -- in particular the money paid to his family as compensation for the death of his war martyr brother -- things take a menacing turn. Weaving in flashbacks and documentary footage, the story takes the viewer back and forth in time, towards the dark family secrets at the film's core. From the opening handheld shots of a taxi crossing the city at night, to scenes of family life or negotiations with the thuggish step-brother, the film distils a compelling portrait of modern-day Iranian society.

Through the financial intrigue in Arash's family, Bakshi hints repeatedly at the scourge of corruption and profiteering. We also see repeated attempts at censorship by the university where Arash teaches, although Bahkshi smiles that: "In Iran we don't have a word for censorship -- we have surveillance." But he also sought to celebrate "the enthusiasm of young Iranians today", shown through Arash's lively students, and the vital role played by women in Iranian society, through a string of finely drawn female characters.

The film premiered in Cannes to a warm critical reception with Screen Daily praising an "invigorating and accessible drama" and The Hollywood Reporter describing it as "an artfully woven political indictment".

Bakhshi said his chief goal was to cast a spotlight on the make-up of modern-day Iran, shown through the relationships in a family. "I wanted to explore things that are not necessarily shown in the media, things from everyday life," said the director who said his priority was to show the film at home in Iran. "Maybe it will take time, but I think it will be released there."

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