A fine and timely statement on the devastating aftermath of modern warfare, Ali Shah-Hatami’s “Shrapnel in Peace” sports two young boys as nominal leads, but otherwise has little in common with the winsome nature of most child-centered Iranian exports. Depicting a purgatorial landscape somewhere between neo-realism and Beckett, this poetical yet emotionally charged feature is a must for fest programmers. Arthouse theatrical pickup is merited on artistic grounds, though admittedly this is anything but an easy commercial prospect.
Focusing on a reality so grotesque it easily lends itself to near-surreal treatment, pic’s setting is a nameless border town scorched beyond earthly recognition after a war — presumably the Gulf War, but any would suffice. The few lingering inhabitants are either opportunists or scavengers, all forced to survive on litter left behind from warfare that destroyed whatever agricultural or social norms once existed here.
For the most part, only children, women, the elderly and crippled remain. They maintain a threadbare sustenance hauling scrap metal — dead ammo, broken weaponry, pieces of downed tanks — to a hard-nosed warehouse boss who’s put his conscience on ice, paying mere pennies in a desperate buyer’s market.
Protags include two subadolescent boys living Huck Finn-style on an abandoned tanker; a woman who drags in massive slabs of a downed plane like Sisyphus; and a wheelchair-bound old man still anxious to support his dwindled kin. They and others are driven daily to erstwhile battlefields. There, risk from still-active mines is high, reward for toil low — but breadwinning alternatives are nada.
Aware they’re being taken advantage of, they demand higher per-pound payment. The warehouse boss is forced to concede, though he has his own problems — this war-booty trade is erratically blocked as illegal by military police. Enraged, he sends the usual motley crew to yea more dangerous grounds, where excruciatingly tense scenes include a mother blown apart within sight of her young daughter and infant.Economical dialogue, stark landscapes, rust-colored image tinting and a spectral, evocative musique-concrete score render “Shrapnel” a virtuoso object d’art so stark it’s almost abstract. Yet helmer’s spare stylization doesn’t at all distance viewer engagement.
Nihilistically depressing though it is, pic nonetheless makes the preciousness of human life feel very immediate; characters’ numbed stoicism is vivid as a instinct for survival that transcends “choice,” bravery, even suffering. Pic would make an unforgettable double-bill with Werner Herzog’s “Lessons in Darkness,” its nonfiction equivalent in Middle East hellscape-surrealism.
Perfs are aptly free of theatrical affect, tech package superb, with Rasoul Ahadi’s color lensing quite stunning.