Soon after his film, “Born Under Libra,” was theatrically released in 2000, writer-director Ahmad Reza Darvish received one of the harshest reviews any filmmaker could imagine: Hard-line opponents of Iran’s reformist movement, angered by the movie, kidnapped Darvish and left him stranded in the desert, where he was eventually rescued. It isn’t difficult to imagine what upset the opposition. With a first half full of extensive dramatization of college students protesting conservative authorities, and the final third concluding with a not-so-subtle anti-war adventure, pic is both a tragic love story writ large and as blunt a strike against the status quo as any Iranian film in recent years. Skilled handling may help translate pic beyond the Persian exile community to a larger aud of foreign film adventurers.
In a moody establishing sequence, Mahtab (Mitra Hajjar) travels south from Tehran by train to pursue her love, Daniel (Mohammad Reza Foroutan), whom she finds morosely holed up in his parents’ village home. The redolent feeling of lovers in exile gives way to a lengthy flashback that consumes over half of pic’s running time, in which Mahtab and Daniel recall what got them here.
As students at a private Tehran college, the couple is ready to ask the permission of Peyman, Mahtab’s politically powerful and conservative father (Mahmoud Azizi), to marry. Though engaged in their hearts, they’re not formally there yet, and, per Iranian legal constraints, mustn’t be seen alone together in public. At home, Mahtab must deal with Peyman’s incessant bossiness, including his reminders to keep covered, even though she is as covered as the next college woman.
At college, though, all hell has broken loose as so-called “Samurais” — young ultra-religious male students — have successfully pressed authorities for an edict to eliminate the college’s co-ed arrangement. Darvish is better at staging the emotional conflicts here, including the pesky problem that Daniel has close ties to the Samurais and Mahtab is part of the widening student protest against the new law, than he is at visualizing the larger social battle. (A “riot” is repeatedly referred to, but we never see it.)
Certain pieces of theatrical action, some involving a nasty-looking security officer, seem to be calling for the services of Snidely Whiplash. A group protest in the college quad, though, sets a striking balance between melodramatic effect and a document of contempo Iranian street politics, something filmmakers until just a few years ago would dare not stage.
Feeling ashamed by his alliances and by a love letter to Mahtab made public, Daniel flees the city after a last disastrous meeting with Mahtab during which she chases and collides with motorcycle thieves after they’ve robbed her. Darvish spares no one a politically aimed dig, even investigating officers who are more interested in why the lovers were together in her car than throwing the book at the culprits.
Returning to the present, action sets off on an entirely unpredictable course, as Daniel drives Mahtab back to Tehran, crashing his cycle during a nighttime rain. Swept away in a flood, they find themselves in a landscape out of “The Rat Patrol” as conceived by Samuel Beckett. They wander through a web of active mines, laced with barbed wire and haunted by skeletons of dead soldiers and abandoned tanks and equipment. Doom could not be more obvious, especially since Daniel is a vet of the war, and yet, in the hands of Foroutan — one of Iran’s busiest stars — and the expressive Hajjar, the sequence becomes a truly terrifying metonym of the country’s recent disasters.
Print is a genuine improvement over recent releases from Stateside-based Iranian Film Society, all the better to display production’s occasional pictorial strokes. Music and sound, as with most of the more commercial Persian movies, is harsh and unbalanced.