Jafar Panahi’s Government Has Banned Him From Filmmaking. But He Keeps Directing Movies.
For a guy in the middle of a 20-year ban from filmmaking, Jafar Panahi sure keeps busy. Overtly critical of his country’s regime, the acclaimed Iranian director has secretly cranked out a quartet of movies since the 2010 gag order. His early movies, like 1995’s The White Balloon and 2000’s The Circle, had already won him festival prizes, so it’s doubly ironic that the creative shackles have arguably put him at the height of his powers. There’s nothing like a few limitations to get those creative juices flowing.
3 FACES ★★★★★(5/5 stars)
Directed by: Jafar Panahi
Written by: Jafar Panahi
Starring: Behnaz Jafari, Jafar Panahi, Marziyeh Rezaei
Running time: 100 min
He famously smuggled his first house-arrest movie out of Iran, 2011’s apartment-set This is Not a Film, on a USB drive hidden inside of a cake. His second one, 2013’s Closed Curtain, takes place completely inside of a vacation house and won Best Screenplay at the Berlin Film Festival. The follow-up, 2015’s Taxi, happens entirely in a car. It took the top prize in Berlin.
And now comes 3 Faces, which nabbed the Best Screenplay award when it debuted at Cannes last spring. This time Panahi boldly ventures outside, specifically to the mountainous and very rural Azeri region in northwestern Iran. His extended family came from these Turkish-speaking villages, where local customs and ancient beliefs still hold sway.
Panahi, playing himself, spends the majority of the film driving his Mitsubishi Pajero around the area with real-life actress Bahnaz Jafari. They’re trying to find a local girl named Marziyeh, who sent Bahnaz a harrowing video that seems to show her committing suicide. And Bahnaz is desperate to know the truth.
“I’m not making a film,” says Panahi over the phone to his concerned mom. “Rest assured.” It’s the first of many slyly defiant statements in this unexpectedly rousing feminist manifesto. The title refers to three generations of women: Bahnaz, Marziveh, plus the never-seen (and real-life) retired actress Shahrzad, who lives in a humble shack alone among the mountains. Why doesn’t Panahi show Shahrzad? Because, like many actresses from the pre-Revolution era, she’s since been banned from appearing in movies.
The women are the past, present, and future of female cinema. And Marziveh, the youngest, actually wants to direct films. But the pressure to give up her dream is so intense that she’s driven to put a noose around her neck and hang herself in a nearby cave. It’s a sane response in a place where Panahi encounters an old woman literally lying in her own grave. “You’re not that bad,” Panahi tells her. “I’m not necessarily good, either,” she deadpans.
What do these villagers hold sacred? The semen of their stud bulls. “His testicles are miraculous,” says one breeder. That prized possession accidentally fell and is now dying in the middle of the main road, a route so winding and narrow that people use their car horns to signal when they’re driving through.
These people are so beholden to tradition that they cling to their children’s severed foreskins in the hopes that a proper burial of the withered flesh will guarantee their boys future success. It’s a place where resentful men cradle rocks with impotent rage. And where a social leper like Shahrzad is dismissed as an unworthy “entertainer.” Yet she goes along with her life, unassumingly painting the landscape and writing poetry. “I dare not say present,” she says, reciting a stanza. “In that case, you are absent.”
3 Faces is a subtly powerful drama that builds slowly. One insignificant encounter after the next seems unrelated, until Panahi almost magically reveals his mosaic of a stifling paternalistic tribalism. There’s a yearning for virility, a distrust of femininity, and a misplaced conviction that the old ways are the only ways.
Capturing it all is Panahi’s deceptively difficult camerawork, with an astonishing technical sleight of hand that’s easy to miss. Just look at the first scene with Bahnaz and Panahi, an extended, uninterrupted single take at night inside of a car. Our vantage point is the dashboard, and the camera slowly rotates 360 degrees, under varying lighting conditions, as the car starts and stops, as characters move in and out, and go from close-up to wide-shot. There are at least a half-dozen more exquisitely orchestrated images that require absolute precision, and play out with an unadorned shrug.
There’s no digital trickery—there’s no budget for that—just an overwhelming virtuosity under the most stringent production conditions. Like the title characters, in the face of constant oppression, there is only quiet persistence. And hope.