Living Only Once

The Iranian road movie

From the early masterpieces, “the road” has often been used as a metaphor for the transformations that traditional narrative films rehearse in the characters of their protagonists. Today the genre has also found a home in the context of Iranian cinema.

The logic of the road movie, as set out in early works such as Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937), is tied closely to the romance of the automobile, and in the American context the genre can be tracked against the rise of the auto industry, the expansion of the highway system, and the new social relations such changes brought to the US. The winds in the road follow the three-stage structure of the narrative film, and along the way, the protagonists fall in love, fight for justice (mostly in vain), or struggle against the other vicissitudes of modern life.

When Henry Fonda’s character in You Only Live Once is framed for murder, he hits the road with his lover to try to prove his innocence. He enters an America where the Great Depression has driven many others to criminality; with its tragic climax, the film exposes the structures of social injustice in Depression-era America. Preston Sturges’s masterpiece Sullivan’s Travels (1941) does much the same, but with a rich and famous Hollywood director who is also falsely accused. In Sturges’s film, the director Sullivan travels between different social landscapes and classes, hoping for inspiration for an important film he means to make, a film about the true America not seen in Hollywood. Eventually mistaken for a vagrant, then criminalized and imprisoned, he only learns his essential responsibility as a filmmaker when he sees a comedy film in prison: there, this “socially-engaged” director realizes that people don’t want to watch films that are about society and its problems …no, they want to be entertained.

His “Damascus moment” arrived at only through his experience on the road, leads him to understand that through entertainment, cinema affirms the essential humanity of its audience. Sturges is unmatched at constructing these sorts of ironies. He creates a road movie that deals with social injustice, but which also critiques itself by confirming Hollywood’s fundamental maxim: cinema is best as escapism, even when it claims to instruct.

The apparent fascination with the road film genre among Iranian filmmakers follows the rough framework of these and other American antecedents but extends in different directions in disclosing the threads that both bind together and divide the social landscape. The Iranian romance with the automobile has, perhaps, no greater poet than Abbas Kiarostami, a preeminence initiated by his simple decision to frame a film camera against the outline of a car’s backseat window for stretches of Zendegi va Digar Hich (Life and Nothing More, 1991). The car’s movement sets in play a tableau where scenery of the devastating Gilan earthquake of 1991 scrolls past the window before the impassive eyes of a young boy. Denuding the images of their tragic content — the piles of rubble, the crowds of people digging to find survivors or bodies, survivors carrying their last possessions over a hill — all accumulate around the theme of resilience, without resort to cliché or false sentiment. But it would be in Taste of Cherry (1997) and Ten (2002) that Kiarostami moved the outlines of the road film into another register entirely, charting the claustrophobic, even paranoiac, urban atmospheres of Tehran through seemingly destination-less trips around different areas of the city. Through a similarly simple framing technique, Taste of Cherry brings the outside realities of the city (and its outskirts) to bear on the suicidal protagonist, while Ten turns the cameras inwards, cutting the city out almost entirely and using only the barest references to the familiar tropes of the road film.

Outside of Kiarostami’s more rarefied sphere, however, the road film has also survived in its more essential forms in more popular Iranian cinema. Tahmineh Milani has always worked within the melodramatic formula favored by Iranian audiences to set in motion feminist critiques of Iranian legal and social systems, and her film Vakonesh-e Panjom (The Fifth Reaction, 2003) is no different. In popular Iranian cinema, no less than in the classic Hollywood films that initiated the road film, the genre is most often used to explore social questions and crises. Centered on a conflict between a widow, Fereshteh (played by Niki Karimi), and her father-in-law over custody of her children, the film critiques the patriarchal legal interpretations of Shari’ah law. Where the film differs from a wide range of other films exploring similar issues (like another Niki Karimi vehicle, Hezaran Zan Mesl-e Man, or A Thousand Women Like Me, 2000, directed Reza Karimi) is in its use of the road film structure to tell the story. When the protagonist decides to escape with her two children, she flees from Tehran to Bandar Abbas. The film follows her journey as she is chased the entire way by her supremely powerful father-in-law. Recalling another milestone of the American road film, Thelma and Louise (1991), Vakonesh-e Panjom is built on the realization of the impossibility of the situation, and the expectation that Fereshteh will never escape her fate. Indeed, the road ends in the southern port city, and she is eventually caught and imprisoned for the crime of being a mother. But Milani leaves the last scene ambiguous, rather than following the usual formula of killing the transgressive female protagonist (a recipe that has been used again and again in Iranian “women’s” films).

Melodrama Sham-e Akhar (The Last Supper, 2002 directed by Fereydoon Jeirani) indulges no such temerity — in its last scene the transgressive female protagonist is done away with in brutal fashion, after her journey of escape from Tehran to the north. And worse yet, her murderer is her own daughter. Although Sham-e Akhar is less of a fully formed road film than Milani’s Vakonesh-e Panjom, it ends with the protagonists hitting the road in search of freedom. Here, too, the intention is escape from social restrictions; but rather than focusing on the question of mothers’ rights — inarguably an issue of great importance in Iran — this film instead examines the question of desire, particularly intergenerational desire. A successful university professor has her hands full holding off a pathologically jealous ex-husband, then finds her life infinitely more difficult when her daughter’s beau begins to show an interest in her. Love ensues, but it’s a passion that is impossible from any number of pragmatic perspectives. They escape, travel to the north, and are killed, echoing the tragic end of the protagonists of You Only Live Once.

Parviz Shahbazi’s Nafas-e Amigh (Deep Breath, 2003) takes the possibilities of the road film in still another direction. Rather than using the genre to explore the nation in general, the film navigates the urban terrain of Tehran with two disaffected young men, Kamran and Mansur. In other road films, the criminalization of innocents is a common narrative, but Nafas-e Amigh concerns two petty and thoughtless criminals, nihilistic young men with no apparent ambitions. The two spend most of their days driving around Tehran, ripping off mobile phones, doing drugs, and generally spiraling downward. Coming across a peculiar, wayward young woman to give a ride to one night, Mansur finds away out of his rut. Again, the film ends with a sequence of Mansur on a journey to escape Tehran with the young woman. In the final scene, authorities find a car that has been plunged deliberately into a lake,an ambiguous ending that leaves us wondering whether they too elected suicide to solve their problems.

Sometimes a film can reflect the questions raised by a road movie without actually embarking on any journey. In Mani Haghighi’s Abadan (2003), there is a hint of the road film in the promise held out for the film’s persnickety old protagonist Amir’s journey to the city of the film’s title. But here, waylaid by numerous obstacles in Tehran, no trip occurs — instead, the film ends with a sort of aborted road film, cutting short Amir’s hope of reaching his dreamed-of destination. Perhaps this sentiment, the frustration and disillusionment of not reaching Abadan best mirrors the present political predicament in Iran. (The film was made during the second Khatami term of off ice, a period of relative frustration for many though perhaps less so than now.) That Abadan was banned from screening in Iran and has had few screenings abroad only reinforces the sense of stagnation it evokes. It’s a cogent metaphor for the hopes of a population whose recent history sometimes seems like a journey on a road to an unknown destination.