This is classic Panahi.
With his fourth completed and globally distributed film while ostensibly under a 20-year filmmaking ban by the Iranian government, it finally feels at least somewhat safe to say that Jafar Panahi is inured to enforcement of his sentence thanks to the close attention of the international arts community. Even Panahi seems to feel more at ease, as 3 Faces marks the first of his films since his trial to pivot away from his own lingering fear of authoritarian reprisal. If Panahi no longer expresses concern for his own safety, though, he returns to his earlier preoccupation with Iran’s social limitations and the struggles of citizens to express themselves in a repressive system. However safe the director might feel with his current situation, he is unafraid to keep pushing his luck with the powers that be.
The film opens with cell phone footage of a young girl, Marzieh (Marzieh Rezaei), making an address to the actress Behnaz Jafari, begging for her help to escape her reactionary family to take a position at an arts conservatory. Hiding out in a cave, the girl attempts to explain her predicament before arriving at a noose she tied to a tree branch and slipping her head into it. After some hesitation, the image scrambles with camera movement as the phone drops to the ground, at which point Panahi cuts to Behnaz Jafari watching the footage in a car, horrified. Already on her way to the girl’s rural village with Panahi (once again inserting himself into his post-incarceration narratives), Jafari can scarcely contain her emotions, though she does begin to question the video’s authenticity, noting the too-perfect nature of certain elements and even wonders aloud if the end of the video was edited.
Immediately, Panahi foregrounds Iranian cinema’s metatextual blurring between neorealism and autocritical self-awareness as the film’s driving narrative conceit. Abruptly, the primary focus of the trip shifts from attempting to help Marizeh to simply confirming her story, and around this time one starts to notice that the camera, initially mounted and static as if set by Panahi, begins to swivel and pan, at one point even capturing Panahi standing outside the car, calling into question who is filming.
In effect, Panahi makes a comedy about the defining characteristic of arthouse Iranian cinema, with an increasingly frazzled Jafari doubting more and more the situation around her. When she and Panahi reach Marzieh’s village, these doubts compound from the too-perfect weirdness of the townspeople and their little quirks of life, from having to engage in call-and-response car horn honking to navigate a one-lane mountain road curve to an old woman discovered lying in a hole that will one day be her grave and referring to it as her “final home.” Locals vent at the very mention of Marzieh, calling the girl empty-headed for wanting to pursue art as a career, yet everyone who recognizes the visitors is starstruck by them. With most of the villagers speaking a Turkish dialect over Persian, Jafari is often left lost as Panahi, who understands enough to get by, listens and responds to others. Her own interactions with townspeople tend to be with those most overtly demonstrating fandom, including a man so superstitious that he gives her a pouch with his son’s foreskin to give to an Iranian star renowned for his strong, virile image in the hopes it will bless his son’s libido.
Yet when the pair do find Marzieh, the comedy gives way to something closer to Panahi’s classic social drama. Jafari castigates the girl for her duplicity in luring them there, but Marzieh can barely speak as she sobs about being repressed by the village. Later, the director and actress mull over the difficulties they themselves faced in convincing their families to let them go into the arts. An unseen has-been actress who lives in the village in a wretchedly small, remote home hangs over the film’s second half as a spectre equally for Marzieh and the established artists, a reminder of how easily stardom can fade anywhere, but especially in Iran. Panahi also widens his scope to get a deeper sense of the locals’ aversion to children becoming entertainers, which complicates their reactionary response to art with a desperate desire to see some of their children become doctors, who are all but wholly absent in the village, leaving them with no ready access to healthcare.
This is classic Panahi, but 3 Faces also regularly invokes the work of the late Abbas Kiarostami, from its deftly complex compositions arranged through car windshields and windows to its dreamy, wandering humanistic asides. Panahi got his start as an assistant for Kiarostami, though his own form of loose but nonetheless forthrightly polemical cinema ordinarily has little in common with Kiarostami’s. Here, he mimics the same capacity for blurred metafiction, of the characters being so precise but the camera always seeming to have stumbled across some new subplot or person by accident. The film’s final shot even pays tribute to some of the static, evocative vistas that Kiarostami employed so well, particularly in the final shot of Through the Olive Trees, the first film where Panahi and Kiarostami worked together. It’s a beautiful tribute to Iran’s best-known director, and yet more proof that not only is Panahi continuing to make films under duress but that he is thriving with some of the finest work of his career.