Daring in its desire to inject political and social commentary into a conventional melodrama, yet aesthetically far behind the tendencies of younger, more rigorous Iranian filmmakers, vet helmer Massoud Kimiayi’s “Protest” fails to connect its vast array of dramatic dots. Pic is burdened by an ambitious, ultra-talky script and myriad relationships, best suited to a novel. Yanked from Tehran cinemas after a month by government authorities (using complaints about overly made-up women thesps as an excuse), the politically oriented pic now will try to eke out an existence in a modest U.S. run of four-wall engagements.
This 21st feature from one of the few still-thriving members of the older generation of filmmakers who remained in Iran after the 1979 revolution (along with Dariush Mehrjui and Bahram Beizai) lacks the focus of Kimiayi’s 1998 “Mercedes.” Issues and characters are either poorly compressed or nearly discarded before the final credits roll.
But despite a bevy of flaws, “Protest” provides an interesting viewing experience for Westerners versed in recent Iranian cinema. Festooned with more social critique than is the norm and starring Tehran-based thesps emoting in a dialogue-driven drama, pic reps a stance that’s 180 degrees away from the likes of “The Apple,” “A Time for Drunken Horses” and “The Color of Paradise,” which feature non-pro, mostly child actors working within spare stories.
Kimiayi opens with a grabber, slowly revealing that agitated Amir (Dariush Arjmand) has killed the fiancee of his younger brother Reza (Mohammad Reza Foroutan), having caught her in an affair. Because his act is one of supreme conviction to faith and family pride, Amir nobly does his 12-year prison time and is released to the cheers of his fellow inmates.
Amir’s closest mate behind bars, Mohsen (Mehdi Fathi), entrusts Amir with collecting on some debts in the outside world, but other than that, retro Amir emerges into 2000 Tehran like Rip Van Winkle. A concerned Reza tells him that his kind of “noble” murder is now seen as rather obscene in the reformist climate, and it seems that Kimiayi is setting up the older, recalcitrant man as a tragic symbol of a now-despised past.
The 10-minute dialogue between brothers about this and other issues typifies pic’s heavy-handed approach to exposition and drama, with the once visually sophisticated Kimiayi clumsily cutting back and forth in displeasing close-ups. This, plus erratic pacing, dull the intended effect of the college-educated Reza revealing that he’s been reduced to delivering pizzas on a motorbike for a living.
With the brothers off on their own, “Protest” awkwardly tries to follow both of them through their Tehran odysseys: Amir to an underground cockfighting arena to collect from the man in charge, who ends up being his new employer; and Reza, trying to woo student activist Ladan (Mitra Hajjar) while befriending opium-addicted Ghasem (Parsa Pirouzfar), who’s haunted by video he’s shot of victims of the horrific Iran-Iraq war.
Too many additional strands to the story hint at a larger work that was whittled down, with any one of the strands worthy of its own movie. Nor does it help that the tone shifts wildly, from a montage of Reza, Ladan and other students delivering a critique of the system that seems right out of Godard circa 1966, to a silly finale in which tragedy erupts and star-crossed lovers meet on a stormy night. While Western auds will have difficulty deciphering the finer points of several discussions, the big dramatic points ooze like soap opera suds.
Foroutan’s sheer handsomeness and expressive qualities tend to dominate the screen, but it’s Reza’s story that might better have served as the movie’s center. Longtime screen presence Arjmand builds a subtle portrait of an alienated, prematurely old man, and he’s nicely paired with Farahi, in a flavorful perf. Younger thesps such as Hajjar and Pirouzfar stress weepy obviousness over emotional depth, as does Majid Entezami’s hammy score.