Iranian Cinema is a rich and diverse cinema that has been in existence since the 1930s amidst oppressive regimes, censorship and even in the face of exile. The history of film as an art form in Iran dates back to the pioneering days of cinema when the first movie theatre opened in Tehran in 1904.
Film was less than ten years old at the time and many Iranians flocked to cinemas to watch these primitive masterpieces. However, it would be another 25 years before Iran would develop its own national cinema, a cinema of morality, humanity, abandon and integrity.
Starting with the opening of the first film school in 1925, an Iranian national cinema quickly began to develop. Since then, cinema has served as an ambassador for Iran, the heart and soul of a country marred by years of instability.
As a result Iranian national cinema has become an engaging, chaotic, soulful and poignant cinema. It remains a true testament to the resilience and industrious nature of the Iranian people and serves as a veracious voice through which Iran can tells its varied and compelling stories.
This is a list of the 15 essential Iranian films of all time.
1. The House is Black (Forough Farrokhzad, 1963)
A short form documentary about life in a leper colony, The House is Black is a film that directly inspired the new wave cinema of post-revolutionary Iran.
Set in the Behkadeh Raji colony, The House is Black deals with the human condition amidst pain and suffering while exalting the joys found in the simpler things in life; two girls brushing each other’s hair, a man dancing barefoot in the street, kids playing make believe with a broom – the banality of life made beautiful through the eyes of this first time filmmaker. These may be lepers we are watching onscreen but they are also humans with lives to live.
The film is narrated by director Farrokhzad who reads passages from the Bible, Koran and her own writings while juxtaposing images to create meaning. The story, you could say, is told in the montage. And while this documentary utilises a large quantity of artifice, as many documentaries do, it does not negate in any way the truth of the suffering of the lepers who inhabit the colony.
Farrokhzad herself was a poet, widely regarded as the best female Persian poet who ever lived, due to her unabashed writings on desire, love and the female perspective. She wrote about being a woman at a time when Persian literature was dominated by male voices. Sadly, Farrokhzad died tragically at the age of 32 following a car accident in Tehran. The House is Black remains her only film.
2. The Brick and The Mirror [aka Brick and Mirror] (Ebrahim Golestan, 1965)
This film, directed by Ebrahim Golestan begins with a taxi driver realising that the beautiful young stranger who just got out of his cab has left a baby in the backseat. The rest of the film revolves around him and his girlfriend trying to find this woman.
A dark and moving piece, the film deals with the moral dilemmas and social anxieties we all face in life and ends with a large dose of social realism as the baby leads the duo on a journey into self- discovery.
Comparisons to Fellini and Antonioni abound when discussing this film however; The Brick and The Mirror remains a much more radical and progressive version of neo-realism in its handling of storytelling and convention which are both, more or less, discarded by Golestan (much like the baby is in the movie).
You never feel as if you are watching a work of fiction with this film, instead you feel as if you are watching the lives of real people unfold before your eyes. Golestan’s social conscious, his use of visual commentary and the emotional honesty, brutal as it might be at times, lends power to the film.
Haunting and liberal in its approach and depiction of gender and society, The Brick and The Mirror helped define the future of Iranian cinema and is regarded by many as one of the most important Iranian films of all time. Also, note the opening sequence of the film with the cabbie driving around Tehran… Look familiar Marty?
3. The Cow (Daryush Mehrjui, 1969)
Any review you read of The Cow will call it a ‘landmark in Iranian cinema’ so I’ll begin by saying; The Cow is a landmark in Iranian cinema. It is considered as such for many reasons, one of the most poignant being the critical acclaim and attention this film brought to the cinema of Iran. It has been said that The Cow was the first Iranian film to grab the attention of international critics, paving the way for Iranian filmmakers of the impending new wave.
The Cow, based on the novel ‘The Mourners of Bayal’ by Gh Saedi tells the story of a man named Hassan who adores his pet cow. When the cow is found dead by the villagers while Hassan is away a decision is made to cover up the death in order to save Hassan from the pain of loss. What follows is a decent into madness where Hassan comes to believe he is the cow.
As with previous films on this list, The Cow was heavily influenced by the Italian neo-realist movement. As Mehrjui himself said in an interview in 1997; he wanted to show the reality of his life including all the ‘ugliness’, a founding tenement of the neo-realist movement.
The Cow examines Iranian rural life in 1969 and the titular cow serves as a catalyst for the action. Having said that, the film is not really about a cow, it’s about Hassan and the village. Their collective fears, their xenophobic tendencies and the bond they share based, in part, on deceit and lies. The cow serves as a metaphor. A metaphor for what you might ask? Well, I’ll leave that up to you to decide but in this reader’s opinion the cow represents a loss of purpose or identity.
By contrasting the plight of one man (Hassan) with an entire community (the villagers) Mehrjui presents to the viewer an analogy of old and ‘new’ Iran. Released at the peak of the Shah’s propaganda campaign in 1969 The Cow encapsulates the collective fears of many Iranians, the fear of progression in the face of tradition.
Hassan represents many nameless people who fear they will not have a purpose in this ‘new’ Iran. In his mind, Hassan is nobody without his cow. He has no sense of identity or purpose and as a result he spirals into madness.
The tragedy of the film lies in Hassan’s inability to accept a new role for himself without his cow. He is not able to accept the loss of his cow, i.e. his purpose in life and in the end he, like his beloved cow, winds up dead. An important film not just in the pantheon of Iranian cinema but in cinematic history – The Cow is a must-see for film fans the world over.
4. Still Life (Sohrab Shahid-Saless, 1974)
Still Life is an immensely subtle film that has been described as a work of visual poetry thanks in part to its use of repetition. The film presents for the viewer a glimpse into the life of an ageing railway signalman named Mohammad (and his wife) whose job is to open and close a railway crossing a few times each day. They live in a very rural and isolated area of Iran that could accurately be called ‘Nowhereville’.
A cyclical film that handles time in a non-chronological manner, Still Life relies heavily on the use of long/wide shots and real-time storytelling to take us on a journey. Entire sequences, uninterrupted, of Mohammad walking to and from the station or Mohammad and his wife eating their dinner allow the viewer to tag along with Mohammad as he lives these very banal moments in life. In doing so we become part of Mohammad’s routine for a brief period of time, just like the trains that run through his station.
Singular in his approach, the director creates a world where each day becomes indistinguishable from the day before or the day after. By choosing to present time in this manner Saless challenges traditional filmic conventions by doing away with typical narrative devices and, instead, applying a much more experimental approach to the film.
Very reminiscent of Ozu in its style and overall aesthetic, Still Life is a tremendous work of art by one of Iran’s greatest, yet internationally lesser known filmmakers. Go watch it now.
5. The Runner (Amir Naderi, 1985)
Inspired by director Amir Naderi’s own childhood experiences The Runner is a film about the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity.
Amiro is an impoverished young boy living in the Persian Gulf Port city of Abadan, an impoverished city built around the world’s richest oil refinery. He happily works odd jobs shining shoes and selling water until one day an off-hand comment by a magazine vendor forces Amiro to realise that he must go to school and learn to read if he truly wants to better his life.
Often compared to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and very much in the style of Italian neo-realism, The Runner is the first post-revolution Iranian film to attract an international audience. Claimed by many to have set the artistic tone for the future of Iranian cinema, The Runner uses montage, repetition and juxtaposition to reveal to audiences Amiro’s deepest desires.
By contrasting images of Amiro running through the city with images of racing trains and planes Naderi creates a visual link between Amiro’s ambitions and his reality. His aspirations become manifest in the editing creating a truly lyrical piece of filmmaking.
Featuring an outstanding performance by the young lead, Majid Niroumand, The Runner is an optimistic and life-affirming film that speaks to audiences the world over, regardless of ethnicity, class or religion.