Finding Depth in Simplicity in Rural Iran - "Djomeh" Review

By A.O. Scott The New York Times

Hassan Yektapanah's "Djomeh" offers the latest evidence that the spirit of Italian neorealism has taken up residence in Iran. At first glance "Djomeh," which won the Camera d'Or (for best first feature) at the 2000 Cannes International Film Festival, is a simple, almost anecdotal story embedded in the daily rhythms of rural life in a dusty, mountainous corner of Iran. But on reflection it proves to be an investigation, at once lucid and enigmatic, of exile, loneliness and the fragile possibility of friendship.

Mr. Yektapanah has said that Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian director with whom he worked on "The Taste of Cherry," "taught me how to look at the world." The lessons are evident in the sense of landscape in "Djomeh" and in its quiet, contemplative pace. But Mr. Yektapanah's way of looking is also more naturalistic and emotionally direct than Mr. Kiarostami's sometimes is, and his manner not quite so oblique and self-reflective as his mentor's can be.

The film's title character, a young man from Afghanistan who is a hired hand on a dairy farm, is a guileless and sweet-natured romantic. Unlike other Afghan emigrants, he has not come to Iran primarily to escape his country's perpetual civil war or to make money but because his impulsive courtship of a widow back home compromised his family honor. In spite of his limited means and humble status, Djomeh (Jalil Nazari), who is treated with condescension and suspicion by the townspeople whose milk he buys, falls in love with Setareh (Mahbobeh Khalili), the daughter of a shopkeeper, and enlists the help of his employer, Mr. Mahmoud (Mahmoud Behraznia), in his efforts to win her hand.

Whether his affections are reciprocated is impossible to know, since local customs and government censors restrict the interactions between unmarried men and women. And Mr. Mahmoud, a sympathetic older bachelor who is Djomeh's only real confidant, is skeptical of the young man's ardor, wondering if he wants to be married simply because, in Afghanistan, that's what a man of 20 is expected to do.

More than passion or obligation, Djomeh's longing to be married seems to be a response to the lonely marginality of his circumstances and an expression of his desire to belong, to find a spot for his loving, openhearted nature to take root. It seems that every day, when he and Mr. Mahmoud arrive in Setareh's village, they encounter a wedding procession, a celebration of social cohesion that only underscores Djomeh's position as an outsider.

While his infatuation with Setareh gives the film its narrative shape -- the daily routine of loading cans of milk and caring for sick cows is interrupted by Djomeh's ill-timed, unnecessary errands to her father's shop -- the emotional core of the film is his friendship with Mr. Mahmoud. Their closeness irritates Habib (Rashid Akbari), Djomeh's older kinsman and designated guardian, whose brusqueness is a bad match for his relative's dreamy temperament (but who nonetheless is given the film's last words of homely wisdom). Every morning Djomeh and Mr. Mahmoud ride together in the cab of a pickup truck, and much of "Djomeh" is devoted to their conversations, in which a quiet warmth shines through the formal courtesies and tactful silences.

Courtesy and tact might also describe Mr. Yektapanah's approach to filmmaking. When the tension between Habib and Djomeh boils over into a fight, the camera leaves the room and waits outside. And the film's climactic scene, in which Mr. Mahmoud returns from his meeting with Setareh's father, is played with a matter-of-fact subtlety so exquisite that its undertones of feeling are almost inaudible.

But such restraint only serves to enrich the experience of watching "Djomeh," which opens today at Film Forum. The film ends with an abruptness that may seem disconcerting but that signals a confident self-sufficiency. The final half-dozen shots are like the well-chosen final sentences of a short story that suddenly reveal the depth and complexity of the plain prose that has come before.

Originally Published September 05, 2001

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