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Movies can provide enormous insight into a country and its people. Iranian cinema has advanced greatly in recent years, not only tackling the country’s social and cultural issues, but also taking the spotlight in many international film festivals and award ceremonies. Read on to discover the Iranian films that everyone needs to watch at least once.
Persepolis is based on the beloved graphic novels of the same name by Marjane Satrapi. Using the same two-dimensional, black and white style as the novels, this French-language film is a biography of Satrapi’s childhood and teenage years during both pre- and post-Islamic Revolution Iran. After the war with Iraq breaks out, we follow her life as an expat in Europe, before she returns to Iran. This film is relatable to many Iranians around the world, and her bittersweet memories provide an honest, unbiased account of Iran’s recent history.
In the 90 minutes leading into the Persian new year, innocent yet determined seven-year-old Razieh wants a new goldfish for the Nowruz table setting. When her money falls under an iron grate, several strangers from all walks of life stop to help her retrieve it. A simple but charming tale, Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon unfolds in real time. A notable feature is that each of the characters comes from a different region of Iran and speaks in their own accent, documenting the varying dialects and ethnicities of the country.
Life and a Day, a drama directed by Saeed Roustaei, recounts the story of Somayeh, the youngest daughter of an underprivileged family in southern Tehran who is set to marry a rich Afghan. Her family members are each battling their own demons: her mother is ill, her sister is obsessive compulsive, one brother abuses drugs, another is conniving, and her intelligent younger brother suffers in this environment. Somayeh is the glue holding her family together, and each fears what will become of their lives after she marries. This film beautifully explores the complexity of family relationships through confrontations and tense dialogue, and the ways we often cruelly hurt the ones we love the most.
Facing Mirrors breaks gender stereotypes in Iran. Rana, a religious woman bound by traditional values, is forced to become a taxi driver to support her family. One day, she picks up wealthy and rebellious Adineh who has fled his home because of the complications he faces as a transgender man. Despite coming from completely different backgrounds, they form an unlikely friendship and become more involved in each other’s lives. Directed by Negar Azarbayjani, this drama is the first from Iran to feature a transgender main character and is sure to surprise audiences.
Shahram Mokri’s mystery drama Fish and Cat was inspired by a true story. A group of friends travel to the northern Caspian Sea region to take part in a kite-flying event and set up camp near a restaurant believed to be serving human flesh. What ensues is a complex tale full of mystery, intrigue, and horror. Filmed as a single, 134-minute shot, this movie is simultaneously real and dream-like.
This docu-fiction style film by the late Abbas Kiarostami was shot on digital video and follows the lives of ten Iranian passengers in a taxi as they relate their stories through conversations with driver, played by actress Mania Akbari. Meanwhile, her troubled young son pesters her from the back seat, giving her a hard time for having divorced his father and remarrying. Though shot in a minimalist style and set solely within the confines of the car, Ten is a captivating look at the people of Iran. Each of the ten stories is more gripping than the one before.
In Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly, a group of friends reunite for a weekend excursion by the Caspian Sea, and Sepideh brings Elly in the hopes of setting her up with Ahmad, who has just returned from Germany. When Elly disappears, the group starts blaming each other for the events leading up to her disappearance, and realize they never really knew her to begin with. This drama will have you on the edge of your seat and questioning everyone’s motives.