(Turkmen, Arabic and English dialogue)
Shot in 1991 and shelved by the Iranian authorities until now, “Dance of Dust” is a striking example of virtually dialogue-less, “pure” cinema, sketching the humdrum existence and powerful superstitions of a community of mud-brick makers in a dusty, godforsaken corner of the country. An impossible commercial proposition, but certain to enhance the festival rep of helmer Abolfazl Jalili (known mostly for the 1994 “Det Means Girl”), “Dance” is that relatively rare thing nowadays — a film with a powerful artistic vision in which style and content are as one.
There’s almost no story in the conventional sense, though the quilt of scattered events, everyday life and working habits is nominally observed through the eyes of Llia (Mahmood Khosravi), an 11-year-old boy whose frightened face is the first and last image on the screen, reflecting some interior terror as the wind howls across the parched landscape. Llia forms a friendship with a girl his age, Limua (Limua Rahi), daughter of a female seasonal worker. The two bond wordlessly in a ritual involving her hand print on a brick, and when the rains finally arrive and the work season ends, mother and daughter depart for home, leaving Llia to his demons.
All of this is scattered throughout a film that is devoted mostly to detailing the lives of the community and the spirit of place in a style approaching the lyrical, ethnographic docus of Flaherty but shot with far greater precision. Niftily edited, with no self-conscious languor, the film juggles faces (old women, babies, a local madman) and ways of life (women rolling pastry, men baking bricks and drinking tea) with a real sense of flow, aided by an effects track (howling wind, ticking clocks) that’s a perpetual partner to the imagery.
Running through the pic are two repeated motifs: Llia running across the landscape, in some kind of attempt at release, and the locals’ raised hands, reaching out to the sky for signs of the rain that will mark the end of their labors.
No Iranian movie would be complete without a subtext, and “Dance” can be read in a number of ways, from an affirmation of animism to the suggestion that some terrible vengeance awaits those who do not submit to grinding ritual. Pic seems to have displeased Iran’s authorities on several counts: At no point is the national Farsi language spoken, Islam is essentially sidelined by superstition, and there are graphic representations of child labor.