Directed by Narges Abyar
Boston Festival of Films from Iran
January 4–17, 2018, at the Museum of Fine ArtsShowtimes: mfa.org
Writer-director Narges Abyar’s Breath offers an unusually rich tapestry of childhood—that of a girl in Iran during the years 1977–1979, when the Shah is ousted and Ayatollah Khomeini takes power. Second-grader Bahar (Sareh Nour Mousavi) narrates the story—how the family moved from Tehran to rural desolation because of her father’s deadly asthma. Granny (Pantea Panahiha) raises the four children who are motherless. This Granny is a nasty, child-beating witch to whom Bahar occasionally says, “I love you,” and who now and then utters the same words to Bahar. This complex relationship of a parent figure tyrannizing children with “love” in the mix happens everywhere, but our intimacy with Bahar’s trauma raises the horror of crimes against children to a real-life level. In contrast, Bahar’s father Ghafour (Mehran Ahmadi), a truck driver, couldn’t be a more thoughtful and loving parent, and though he’s part of the rallies shouting “Down with the Shah”—presumably religiously conservative—he also encourages his daughter’s reading and top grades in school. At the same time, as the film progresses, Granny admonishes Bahar to keep a distance from her favorite cousin and playmate Taher, because she’s mature now and can’t be seen with boys. We’re shown how girls’ instructions are full of confusing inconsistencies: study with ambition to become, but separate yourself from men, hide behind a scarf, take an inferior role, accept male abuses.
Bahar’s imagination populates the movie as she narrates folkloric tales that appear in black-and-white animation on the screen. The lurid books she sneaks from her uncle’s collection also appear in these animated forms as she reads them in voice over. The stories come naturally to this talented child, but they also provide an escape from her troubled world of Granny and her fear that her father might die from an asthma attack. Later, the Iran-Iraq War breaks out, and Ghafour joins the army, leaving the children with Granny.
It’s a marvel to watch a child actor play the emotional vicissitudes of Bahar. She must embody terror when facing the black-clad, evil-faced Granny swinging her stick; she must soar in spirits on a sky-gliding swing; repose in her dreamy inner sanctum of stories; play the competitive and bullying games of children; and reveal adoration for her father, along with anxiety over his health. It’s a spectrum of inner and outward emotions handled remarkably by Mousavi. Among the other principal roles, Pantea Panahiha as Granny superbly incarnates the she-demon of fairy tales, which nicely complements the movie’s premise of a little girl’s inner fantasy life.
Culturally, Breath is like a rich vein in a gold mine, providing a view of another world in another era, evoking every sensory detail from food to music to setting and daily life with historic rituals and dress. The film also offers an excellent contrast to another movie in the festival, Tehran Taboo, which depicts a chaotic, twenty-first century Tehran, forty years after the revolution. Although this urban cultural chaos happens globally, its intricacies in this film pertain to Iran.
Breath is long, some scenes could have been edited out, including one or two of the animated stories and the final epilogue. The ending in general, with its dirge-like music, makes a dramatic war statement that has more to do with the lightly sketched-in political backdrop than the intense family story, the childhood biography, that defines the movie. War does affect Bahar’s life, including the sound of gunfire and bombs and the need to run to a neighbor’s basement for shelter. Yet, the conclusion of the movie focuses on the war thread and not the dominant themes of the movie: family relations and a child’s experience in both reality and the realm of the imagination. Small quibbles aside, Breath is a five-star movie Western audiences are fortunate to share.
Also featured at the Boston Festival of Films from Iran: Kiarostami’s posthumous 24 Frames, an experimental film that digitally alters 23 of the filmmaker’s stills to probe the “before-and-after action” of each shot. Visit mfa.org for showtimes.