For the past few years, Iranian director Jafar Panahi has been sending a series of quietly confounding films to festivals that he’s not allowed to attend. “Three Faces,” which premiered in May 2018 at the Cannes Film Festival, is the latest of these little examples of his cinematic sleight-of-hand, and another Panahi gem that has more on its mind than it lets on.
“Three Faces” is typical of the canny director’s output in the way it’s modest but profound, leisurely but urgent, a portrait of a country disguised as a meandering road movie.
But it’s not like he’s using misdirection or only pretending to be modest and leisurely. Panahi’s films are all those things at once — and this one is particularly timely at this year’s Cannes in the way he manages, without openly criticizing his home country, to sketch a portrait of how the refusal to give women much agency in their lives is ingrained in the society.
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He is at once the most playful of directors and the most serious, using a light touch to explore heavy matters in the face of government restrictions.
Along with Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov, a critic of the Putin regime who is under house arrest for what his supporters say are political reasons, Panahi is one of the two main-competition directors who has been prevented from traveling to the festival by his home country. Convicted of “propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” among other offenses, he is not allowed to leave Iran, and in 2010 he was officially forbidden from making movies for 20 years, a decree he has now ignored four times.
The first was 2011’s wryly titled “This Is Not a Film,” in which he sat in his apartment and described the film he would have made if he had been allowed to do so. The second, “Closed Curtain” in 2013, was a funhouse mirror of sorts, set inside a beach house where a screenwriter keeps the drapes drawn to avoid detection. And the third, 2015’s “Taxi,” was a wry and exceptional film that found Panahi simply driving a cab around Tehran and having conversations with his passengers about the state of life in the country.
Also like Serebrennikov, whose “Leto” was a highlight of the festival’s first few days, Panahi’s contribution to this year’s Cannes is a significant one. “Three Faces” continues to blur the line between fiction and documentary, and to subtly comment on the state of Iran.
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The film starts with an iPhone video apparently shot by a distraught young woman who seemingly hangs herself after her family and her fiance’s family have refused to let her attend an acting conservatory in Tehran. The video gets to Panahi and to actress Behnaz Jafari, both playing themselves, who venture to the small mountain village where the girl lives in an attempt to track her down.
Typical of the director’s elusiveness, Jafari scolds Panahi early in the trip, saying that she thinks he may just be making a movie about suicide, not really investigating a missing girl. Then Panahi’s mother calls and says, “I hear you’re off making a film?”
“No, that’s not true,” he says.
“Now you’re telling your mother fibs?” she shoots back.
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The trip plays out in long conversations, in arguments and invitations to tea and discussions of what value entertainment has in rural Iran, where one character dismissively says there are more satellite dishes than people. The aspiring young actress, they learn, was branded an “empty-headed brat” because she wants to be an actress — but an aging star of some renown who lives in the area is treated similarly, and the townspeople alternate between adulation and scorn when they speak to Jafari.
A lot of things happen at a remove: Jafari goes into a house to speak to the young woman, but Panahi remains in the car and so does the camera. Attitudes evolve, slightly, but there’s no grand conclusion, just the sense that women, even famous ones, are there to be acted upon, not to act (in every sense of that word).
Before “Taxi” screened at the Berlin Film Festival, where it won the top prize, the Golden Bear, Panahi released a statement: “Nothing can prevent me from making films since when being pushed to the ultimate corners I connect with my inner-self and, in such private spaces, despite all limitations, the necessity to create becomes even more of an urge.
“Cinema as an Art becomes my main preoccupation. That is the reason why I have to continue making films under any circumstances to pay my respect and feel alive.”
With “Three Faces,” he once again makes the audience feel alive as well.