The nothing doing cafe - "Delbaran" Review

By David Lipfert

A dusty truck stop on the Iranian border is in the path of progress despite the efforts of the owners and an Afghani boy named Kaim, who's in danger of being returned to his own war-torn country in "Delbaran."

Director Aboulfazl Jalili turns the mundane into the picturesque while telling the story of a cafe/truck stop in a dusty spot near the Iran/Afghanistan border called Delbaran. Anything that happens there comes from the outside. Afghanis pass through en masse to find menial work in Iran so they can support their families back in their war-torn country (at the moment of filming). Truckers appear, do some maintenance, eat and leave.

There is only one visitor who is unwelcome, a lone police officer (Ahmad Mahdavi) on the lookout for illegals. He doesn't seem to be a mean person, but if he deports the 14-year-old Afghani boy Kaim (Kaim Alizadeh), it would mean big problems for elderly cafe owner Khan (Rahmatollah Ebrahimi). Khan's equally aged wife Khale serves as sentry from her upstairs window because Kaim does all the heavy work at the cafe as well as important duties such as spreading homemade nails over the road in hopes that flat tires will force the trucks to detour to the old cafe.

Each time the officer pays a visit, Kaim makes himself scarce while Khan supplies the officer with tea and all the right answers. Eventually the inevitable happens, and Kaim is gently hauled off. Khan and wife are masters at persuasion, so the policeman reluctantly releases Kaim. But before long, progress in the form of a new bypass highway decides everyone's fate.

Jalili is treading familiar ground for Iranian cinema, both in setting and story line, but he does it well. Characters are fully rounded, and his elliptical editing obliges the audience to be actively involved. Also characteristic of the majority of Iranian art films that reach these shores is Delbaran's brevity - a virtuous 96 minutes.

Mohammad Ahmadi's photography of people and landscapes is nothing short of stunning, but Jalili's passion is narrative. Based on a story by Reza Saberi, "Delbaran" has had some commentators taking its verite aspects as crypto-documentary. In truth, the film's central Iranian landscape is somewhat different from the supposed locale in the northeast part of the country, but most viewers won't notice the difference. What is true is that Kaim and the others are photographed so sympathetically that the ending is all the more distressing.

This being Iranian cinema, there are plenty of cues that merit explaining. The cafe is a low-key hotbed of rebellion. An internal political exile chucks off the days until freedom while he acts as chief repairman for the truck stop. The favorite pastime seems to be playing cards (a big no-no these days). Drug flow from Afghanistan offers handy alternative methods to relax. Even the policeman is not exempt - he plays pre-IR (Islamic Republic) songs on his tape deck while he hunts down Afghanis. (How ironic that his biggest bust was flawed - the Afghani groom was anything but an impostor trying to skirt immigration rules.)

In case you are wondering why this could be an Iranian/Japanese co-production, Japan hosts the highest number of Persian expat guest workers after Germany. "Fardah," a just-released Iranian film hopefully on its way here, has a Japanese guy traveling around central Iran searching for a local who once worked in Japan. So it is no surprise that he meets innumerable people who speak Japanese. The title means "Tomorrow" (as in Mañana), implying that the two will never meet up.

Originally Published March 23, 2002

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