On the bus, she silently observes the life around her: an old widow moaning about young people’s manners, a young man and woman eyeing each other across the crowd, musicians busking for money. But when she reaches the bus terminus (the first leg of her journey), she finds it’s the wrong one — she’s gone in the opposite direction. After some panicking, a friendly driver puts her on another bus.
It’s here, at the 40-minute mark, that the movie springs its main surprise. Off camera, Panahi’s voice says, “Mina, don’t look at the camera!” and, in a sudden huff, the girl pulls off her cast, cries, “I don’t want to make this film anymore!” and climbs off the bus. A whole new movie now begins as Panahi and his crew, observed by a grainier 16mm camera, unsuccessfully try to persuade her back and finally decide to follow and film her secretly (from the point of view of the original 35mm camera) as Mina, playing “herself” and still wearing a radio mike, also tries to find her way home.
Just at the point where pic was starting to show stretch marks, this cinematic concept revitalizes the action. Initial scenes, as the crew trails and sometime loses her in the capital’s crowded streets, are genuinely fascinating. But scenes like one in which Mina bumps into the actress who played the widow — who says she was paid money to act like a grouch — are too few and far between: Having set up a scenario that would give even Brecht a nervous breakdown (the audience is, after all, still watching a movie), Panahi fails to develop the idea in any constructive way. The final scenes, after Mina has reached home, especially drag.
Aside from the running joke about all of Tehran’s streets looking the same, pic basically settles into a series of meetings between Mina and friendly cab drivers and passersby. There’s none of the intellectual follow-through that has driven other Iranian movies of a similar film/reality bent, such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s “A Moment of Innocence” or several of Kiarostami’s pics. As “The White Balloon” sometimes showed, Panahi’s weakness is still on the scripting side.
Still, as a sheer technical tour de force the film rates highly. There’s a clever feel of real time, of being shot in a single day, that is a tribute to Farzad Jadat’s good-looking lensing, the skillfully edited soundtrack and Panahi’s own cutting, especially in the myriad scenes where traffic obscures the action and the city seems to become one huge, heaving mass of humanity, autos and identical streets. Khani, too, is aces as the kid: Though her voice sounds like fingernails across a blackboard, she’s a tireless ball of feisty energy who manages to keep the movie afloat even when it has basically run out of ideas.