"Day Break" Review

By Charlie Prince Cinema Strikes Back

"Day Break" is one of the more interesting films at the Tribeca Film Festival this year if only because, for those of you who can't come to the festival in person, this is the only film I know of that you can buy this moment if you like and watch on DVD at your pleasure. To be honest, if I'd known about the DVD release by FilmMovement, I'd probably have gotten tickets to a different film tonight, given all the films that are screening that we won't have time to see, but at least it was a good one.

Director Hamid Rahmanian told the audience at the end of the film that what is shown onscreen is exactly what happens in real life capital punishment cases in Iran. The prisoner is woken up at the break of day (hence the title) and given a medical examination - he must be healthy in order to be executed, if he is sick, the execution is delayed. The prisoner is brought out and confronted by the victim's family, and it is the victim's family that decides whether the prisoner will live or die. The victim's family must be present in order for an execution to take place, or else the execution is postponed.

In "Day Break," the star, Mansour (played by Hossein Yari) has been brought out for execution three times (we watch him go through the process the third time) and all three times the victim's family has not shown up. We watch as another man is confronted by a family member of the person he murdered. After a drawn out, pitiful sequence where the condemned begs for his life and the family member adamantly refuses to budge, the judge orders him to get up on a footstool to be hung ("Say a prayer and get up there"). At the last second a bargain is struck (donate your house to an orphanage and I'll waive the hanging). In the meantime, Mansour listens as a prison guard tells the judge that the victim's family member in his case (who has not shown up) is on the phone - that person's mother has died, and they must wait for a 40 day mourning period to lapse before they can attend to Mansour's execution. Mansour must wait.

You'd think that'd be a happy development, after all, a lot can happy in 40 days as one cell mate tells Mansour, but he's in no mood for such encouragement. The process of preparing to die (three times) has taken its toll on Mansour and by the time we see him, he's barely alive. He's stopped communicating with the (otherwise very communal and jovial) other prisoners, and is barely talking or eating. When his family comes to speak to him in visiting hours, he turns them away, telling them not to come back (even though his wife is on the verge of having their first child!). In one dramatic scene he breaks a mirror with his head, and uses the glass shards to attempt suicide in the shower.

With his time, Mansour dwells on the past, and through a series of flashbacks, we begin to learn about who our star really is. Other than the murder, he seems a nice fellow. He's energetic, laughs a lot with his wife, convinces his family to sell their sheep in Zir Ab and move to the big city - Tehran - where he has been assured work as a welder and has heard hints of a raise in salary. The move comes, but the welding job doesn't, and we see a clip of him being scoffed at over the phone. "There's no work for you, stop calling me," a faceless would-be-boss barks into the phone. We can assume that he is the one who gets whacked with a brick (off-camera) which is what has landed Mansour in jail.

As depressed as he is, the 40 day reprieve begins to lighten his mood, Mansour even knits some baby socks for his new-born daughter (named Mahtab for the full moon), and shows some warmth towards his wife when they come to visit (he runs his hand down her shawl, as if along the side of her face, and the director informed us afterwards that per Iranian film rules, it would have been cut by the censors had he actually touched her skin, but since it is the shawl he touches, it's okay). He dreams of a prison escape at one point, and even steps in to take the blame for a fight, earning the appreciation of his cell mates as well as a few days in solitary confinement. But then his fourth, potential execution day arrives. His cell mates try to comfort him ("Don't worry, they won't execute you.") and (spoiler ahead) the film stops right before we find out what happens to him. After the screening the director said he wanted the audience to decide for itself, to play the role that the victim's family would play in making a decision, and that he didn't feel he had a right to decide this character's fate. Since I had no sense at all of the former explanation while watching the film, I'm going to assume the latter reason given is the better understanding.

After the screening, Rahmanian made some interesting comments. Apparently it took him one and a half years to get permission to film in an Iranian prison, made harder, perhaps, because Rahmanian himself now lives in the United States. But apparently the domestic reception has been good. He reported that the Iranian Minister of Justice himself had now seen the film and was okay with it, so a release in Iran is expected. Apparently he liked the way that the judge was portrayed in the movie. One audience member pressed him to explain a stylistic choice used early in the film - the opening starts off as if it were a home-movie shot by Mansour's family. They talk directly into the camera, and a lot of exposition-y material is conveyed that way, especially by the judge, who explains the procedure that takes place in a capital punishment case. This switches abruptly to a more traditional use of the camera as an impersonal eye, with characters talking to each other as if the camera was not there. Rahmanian explained he decided to do it that way to get a lot of information across quickly, but I must confess to being a bit jarred by the stylistic switch myself, though it is a minor complaint.

In fact, for his first dramatic film, Rahmanian has made something he should be proud of. At the same time, it has the feel of a documentary (Rahmanian's outlet of choice until this film) in many ways - in the end we learned a lot about capital punishment in Iran, but other than operating as a contemporary political criticism, there's a bit of a flatness to the storyline. He's in jail when the film starts and he never leaves that purgatory-like state. To the extent that Mansour evolves in the film, from a withdrawn, shell-shocked shadow of a man to a more socially interactive person who allows himself some warmth and enjoyment, the change is minor and the reasons for the change are not the focus of the film. Nor do we stare down any other characters, or share in their struggles. And the back story leading up to the crime is basically just acknowledged in the most thread-bare way possible. Now, don't get me wrong - the subject matter is truly interesting, and the characters are believable and well-acted, hence the 3 out of 4 rating, but there is a monotone aspect that limits the film, or at least so I'd humbly suggest. This film does not take us on a journey, and pales in comparison to some of the great accomplishments in Iranian cinema, like "The Cow," "The Bicycle," or even "A Taste of Cherry," which has a similar focus on coming to terms with death, but seems to draw you in to a more personal, affected viewing experience. That said, it's easy to say a first film isn't as good as the classics, and for something that essentially amounts to a well-acted informational lecture, the film is much better than you might expect.

Filmmovement, a DVD-of-the-month magazine-like club that focuses on festival favorites, has just released the DVD. At the moment it appears to only be available to yearly subscribers, but for those of you who aren't subscribers, there's a good chance they'll offer it (at a small markup) on an individual basis sometime soon.

Originally Published April 27, 2006

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