Rafi Pitts, the acclaimed exiled Iranian director, twice nominated for the Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear with The Hunter (2010) and It’s Winter (2006), first came to international attention with Sanam (2000). Released on DVD by Artificial Eye over ten years later, was it worth the wait? The simple answer is, yes. The longer answer is, but…
…The film opens with a young boy Issa, witnessing from afar the murder of his father – reputedly for horse rustling. Now without a father, and his mother – the titular Sanam – without a husband, their outlook is bleak. In the midst of harvest season, they eke out an existence working the fields, pitching hay, and shepherding. Issa fights other boys who taunt him as the son of a thief; Sanam fights off the unwanted attentions of an older man, as well as taking on the authorities single-handedly in an attempt to clear her dead husband’s name. Meanwhile Issa plans to steal back the horse that he believes was his father’s all along.
The imagery in this film is heartbreaking. The landscapes vast, the colours rich and deep whilst somehow remaining cold and imposing. Issa’s smallness against an epic rural Iran is keenly felt. He’s a symbol of the minuscule nature of man against the largeness, even largess, of God. And even in pre-Armadinejad Iran (the infamous President is no friend of Pitts, a supporter of the Green revolution and close friend of the imprisoned filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof) the helplessness of the everyman against the faceless power of the State is one of the film’s clear messages.
The star of the film would be the landscapes themselves were in not for Ismaïl Amani as young Issa, whose face carries the experience and expressions of an adult. Only his body movements and acts of rebellion belie his natural childishness. He struggles between the more adult thoughts of vengeance and retribution, and a childish love of horses and dancing. Being in effect the central character with the most screen time, there’s a good case for naming the film Issa rather than Sanam. That said, while Issa’s face is arresting, Roya Nonahali as Sanam could have stepped out of an early Picasso painting – her flashing green eyes and sculpted face screaming the plight of womanhood amid patriarchal oppression that is the true subject of Pitts’ film.
What lets the film down at points is arguably the same reason that sweeps it along to a deeply moving conclusion: the dreary mundanity of everyday life is relentlessly documented. The wind supernaturally howls, the dogs bark as if crying. While numerous shots could be paused, printed and hung in an art gallery – cinematography fans will drool throughout, especially the scenes with the elderly shepherd in his animal skins against the bleached blue sky, or Issa sat upon a mountain top – there are moments when the mind starts to drift. As with much of Iranian and Middle Eastern cinema (at least the stuff that makes it to Western art house screens) the telling is often in what is left unsaid; the action implied. While only ten years old, at times it looks and feels like a moment of 1970s new wave forgotten amid a stampede of more exciting films.
Exciting, Sanam isn’t. Nor does it try to be. It has scenes, images and performances that will stay long in the memory. It offers a taste of impoverished Iran that, according to dissident voices such as Pitts, has only gotten worse in the passing years. And there are even some laughs to be had – yes, laughs – from Issa’s cheeky rebelliousness. Indeed Ismaïl Amani’s performance has to be up there amongst the great child characters of realist cinema. And while some scenes may drag they add up to a worthy whole which, amongst its peers in Iranian cinema, at 88 minutes is positively abrupt.