Iran's Universal Truths Under Dust and Poverty - "The Jar" Review

By Caryn James The New York Times

The ending of "The Jar," a small Iranian film, is pretty much the same as that of the Michelle Pfeiffer hit "Dangerous Minds," in which a beleaguered schoolteacher threatens to call it quits. Don't be fooled by that. Nothing else about the two movies is similar. In fact, "The Jar," which opens today at Film Forum 1, might be a case study of a typical film from Iran, whose cinema is increasingly respected.

"The Jar" takes an extremely limited story -- a large urn holding a rural school's drinking water cracks and must be replaced -- and uses it to create a vision of an entire segment of the culture. The style is slow and precise, focusing on details that reveal the life and attitudes of the village. Visually, it unfolds like a picture book, with broad, prettily composed views of the desert landscape and cramped houses. Directed by Ebrahim Forouzesh, "The Jar" is an accomplished film best appreciated by viewers with a large appetite for foreign cultures and little taste for action.

Every day the schoolchildren walk into the yard and dip a metal cup into the jar. When they discover a leak, and learn from their new teacher that it will take a long time for the government to send a new one, the village is pitched into a crisis. A boy whose father might be able to repair the jar is deeply embarrassed because the father is reluctant to work free. When the father finally agrees, he needs ashes, lime and eggs to patch the jar. The children are asked to bring the materials from home, which creates another crisis. This is a village in which sheep graze, not everyone owns a hen, and resources are scarce. "We don't have eggs to eat and you want to bring them to school?" asks one mother.

As the teacher fumbles his way through this ordeal, "The Jar" occasionally becomes a comedy of manners, revealing universal qualities (beyond the Michelle Pfeiffer connection) lurking beneath the dust and poverty of its precise setting. Children are naturally good-natured and subject to peer pressure. Small-town gossip exists everywhere; when someone goes to town to buy a new jar, he is variously accused of using the money to see a movie or to open a shop.

Using mostly nonprofessional actors, Mr. Forouzesh has created a quiet, natural film. "The Jar" is deft, admirable and intelligent. But a film in which a village tries to repair a jar for 85 minutes doesn't qualify as exciting.

Originally Published September 27, 1995

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