Don't Know the Nominee? Please Just Vote, Anyway - "Secret Ballot Review

By Dave Kehr The New York Times

A lighthearted, whimsical comedy about the blossoming of democracy in Iran must necessarily be either incredibly calculating or incredibly naive. But "Secret Ballot," a new Iranian feature from Babak Payami (whose "One More Day" made the festival rounds a couple of years ago), is never clearly one or the other.

After seeing it twice, I'm still not sure whether the film is a canny piece of propaganda on behalf of the Iranian theocracy and the token democratic reforms that the mullahs have permitted, or if it is a work of stunningly sunny optimism that honestly believes genuine democracy is on its way to that beleaguered country.

Filmed on Kish, a desert island in the Persian Gulf that the Iranian government declared a free-trade zone in 1993, hoping to open the way to tourism and foreign investment, "Secret Ballot" more accurately takes place in a dreamscape largely devoid of permanent structures, where the handful of residents live in tents or clay huts.

The film begins ominously, with a bomb-like object dropping from a plane as dawn breaks over the island. But the bomb turns out to be a packing case containing voting materials -- ballots and a big cardboard ballot box -- to be used in gathering the islanders' votes in a major national election.

Arriving by motorboat soon after the parcel is a nameless young woman (Nassim Abdi), whose perfectly pressed chador and self-confident manner immediately identify her as a resident of a more prosperous big city to the north.

She is the appointed election official for the island, and she quickly importunes a young, terminally bored soldier (Cyrus Abidi), stationed at the seaside to watch for smugglers, to drive her around the island, tracking down the reluctant voters in their lairs.

Disingenuously, Mr. Payami, who directed the film and wrote it from an idea by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of the country's best known filmmakers, declines to identify the nature of the election. The locals -- peasants, fisherman, a smuggler or two -- are asked to examine a list of 10 names and vote for two of them; many complain that they recognize no one on the list and don't see the purpose in voting for names that mean nothing to them.

Their point seems valid enough, but to the young woman, the important thing is that the democratic rituals be played through without fault. The young soldier, initially skeptical, begins to back her up in her manic quest to get the entire population to vote before the 5 p.m. deadline.

Much of the movie is devoted to the relationship between the sophisticated city woman and the simple country soldier, who bicker, banter and eventually begin to flirt -- albeit in an extremely restrained, religiously appropriate style.

There are a few stabs at absurdist comedy -- a traffic light in the middle of nowhere, which the law-abiding soldier refuses to run -- but mostly the humor is of the sweet, gentle and occasionally cloying kind that has become an Iranian specialty.

The landscape photography, by Farzad Djodat, is fully up to the high standards of the Iranian cinema, and there is always something pleasant to look at in the film, which opens today in Manhattan.

But whatever its political orientation (you notice that the Iranian Army has provided the filmmakers with a transport plane), it is a very minor contribution to the great corpus of Iranian cinema that has emerged in the last 20 years.

Originally Published August 9, 2002

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