“Iran” and “comedy” don’t often see themselves in the same sentence, but “3 Faces” is the latest entry in that rarest of cinema sub-genres.
Jafar Panahi, who made “Tehran Taxi” and the darkly funny/socially-biting “Offsides,” finds wry laughs amid the clashing cultures of rural, Azerbaijani Iran and the potentially offensive “liberation” of a life in cinema. It’s filled with wry laughs, comical rural “types” and over-the-top, fame-craving desperation worthy of an over-the-top slapback.
The “3 Faces” of the title are three generations of Iranian actresses — a modern day star, an aspiring starlet with a chance to attend a Tehran conservatory and a screen legend from before the Islamic Revolution, lying low, living alone in a backwater where everybody knows who she was and can shake their heads at what her talent and fame earned her.
A young woman (Marziyeh Rezaei) sends a cell-phone video from her tiny village in Northern Iran. She is desperate, pleading with a movie star to save her. “I’ve loved cinema since I was little,” she declares (in Persian, with English subtitles). She’s won the chance to attend a film school/acting conservatory in Tehran, but her family is determined that she go through with their plans first (An arranged marriage?). THEN school.
“They betrayed me,” she wails. the jumpy, tense XCU cell-phone video ends with young Marziyeh hanging herself and the phone tumbling to the ground.
The actress she sends this to, the famed Behnaz Jafari, is distraught. She exits the set of her latest film, flaming red dye job and all, and gets her director — Jafar Panihi (See what they’re doing here?) — to drive her north to see what happened.
“If she’s dead, how could she send this?”
But the “film” is real enough to make them wonder if the kid hung herself. It’s just that the star is cynical enough to wonder if her director, who has pitched a suicide story to her as a project, is just messing with her.
If he is, this is quite the elaborate hoax. They’re way beyond paved roads, asking for directions to the village of Saran from locals who crack, “Your Turkish isn’t very good,” (in Turkish, with English subtitles).
Behnaz and Jafar “investigate” and try to reason out what might have happened, parsing every encounter. A wedding party on the mountain-girdling dirt path they’re driving means either that the girl didn’t kill herself, or they’re not close to Saran.
That whatever repressive steps the Islamic State to limit women’s rights never took hold in Iran is obvious from Behnaz’s doing most of the questioning — polite, discrete, “Did something just happen here?” She doesn’t want to give away that she’s fishing for a suicide.
They suspect “a cover-up,” just another one of those things the Islamic State doesn’t want the Iranian people to know is going on all around them. Ambitious, passionate, talented girls exist. And must be STOPPED.
The mere fact that these two unmarrieds are touring a waterless backwater like this is a tad subversive. And that’s the starting point for Panihi’s exploration of empowerment, repression and this local girl they start to hear about as they close in on her village.
“She didn’t know when to keep her mouth shut.” And yet, she persisted.
It takes a while to pick up on the droll vibe Panihi was aiming for, here. We meet an old woman test-driving her freshly-dug grave, many locals they meet have a story of Shahrazade, a film star under the Shah, now in exile, a near-recluse on the edge of this very village.
The older star, first of the “3 Faces,” craved independence and artistic outlet and free expression and, it is implied, had a corrupting influence on young Marziyeh.
“She has brought DISHONOR to the family!” the most disapproving relative bellows at one and all. Some might agree, but most think he’s being a little extreme.
The biggest laugh here I won’t give away, save to mention that it involves a LOT of slapping. But there’s a general culture-clash whimsy about “3 Faces” that matches the funniest moments in “Offsides,” Panahi’s 2006 comedy about soccer mad women trying to sneak into the male-only world of Tehran’s soccer stadium.
A nation of religious philosophers resides all around these two film folks — “The world is unjust. It knew Noah as well as Solomon!”
Behnaz earns reactions from “Didn’t I just see you on TV?” to “We are honored by your presence!” culminating with, “Now that you’re here, how’s that TV series end?”
“Same as always,” she sighs. “Tears and mourning.”
Panihi, a pioneer of the Middle Eastern New Wave cinema? He’s mistaken for a bureaucrat, come to hear grievances about the water, the intermittent power outages, the roads.
“Didn’t you come here to help us?”
Actually, by creating another comedy for those “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,” by making another film about the plight of women in backward theocracies, by finding fun in the “Green Acres” quaintness of rural Iran, that’s exactly what Panihi is doing.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with suicide, threats of violence
Cast: Behnaz Jafari, Jafar Panahi, Marziyeh Rezaei
Credits:Directed by Jafar Panahi, script by Jafar Panahi, Nader Saeivar . A Kino Lorber release.
Running time: 1:40