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Bemani / To Stay Alive

Dariush Mehrjui, whose 1969 "The Cow" opened up a new era in Iranian filmmaking, puts aside the sophisticated city narratives of his recent films to examine the tragedy of provincial women struggling to lead normal lives in an ultra-conservative society.

With:
With: Masoumeh Bakhshi, Shadi Heydari, Neda Aghayi.

Dariush Mehrjui, whose 1969 “The Cow” opened up a new era in Iranian filmmaking, puts aside the sophisticated city narratives of his recent films to examine the tragedy of provincial women struggling to lead normal lives in an ultra-conservative society. “Bemani” is an extreme film detailing extreme acts of desperation that, like Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s “Kandahar,” uses artistic license to make its point like a kick in the stomach. Though to a large extent pic schematizes its three young heroines — who are depicted less as individuals than as horror stories — it succeeds in conveying a strong feeling of anger against patriarchal society. Pretty much a love-it-or-hate-it film, it was completely passed over in the national film awards but proved a favorite with foreigners at the Fajr Film Festival, suggesting that its future lies abroad.

Adopting an up-front camera style that modernizes the ageless tale, Mehrjui introduces a trio of young women living in a remote village near the Iraqi border. Madina comes from Iraq and weaves carpets. When a nice young soldier accompanies her home one day on the pretext of buying a rug, her uncles cut off her head.

Case 2: Nassim is studying medicine at the university without her father’s knowledge. He finds out and drags her out of class, humiliating her deeply. Locked in the cellar as punishment, she sets herself on fire.

In the final and longest story, the beautiful Bemani is given in marriage to her family’s rich but repulsive landlord. Mehrjui’s camera slowly but surely builds up in damning, sometimes comic detail to the horrors of her wedding night. Almost mad with suffering, Bemani (a name that means “to stay alive”) commits her own act of desperation, but survives to challenge her “fate.”

The strange thing about these stories is that they don’t come from 1,001 Arabian Nights but from the year 2002; everyone is aware that a modern world exists and the girls, at first, appear to be part of it. It’s a jolt to find out they’re not. Pic hits center when a young doctor says, with cynical resignation, that larger hospitals should be built, given the region’s high rate of female suicide attempts.

Use of an offscreen “interviewer” who occasionally talks to the characters reinforces the sensation of watching true if dramatic events, told in abrupt starts and stops by cinematographer Bahram Badakhshani’s businesslike camera. Film’s very listenable score by Mohammad Reza Darvishi adds a pleasanter note.

Bemani / To Stay Alive

Un Certain Regard / Iran

Production: Produced by Mohammad Nikbin, Tahmineh Milani, Dariush Mehrjui. (International sales: Mohammad Nikbin, Tehran.) Executive producer, Mohammad Reza Sharifinia. Directed by Dariush Mehrjui. Screenplay, Mehrjui, Vahideh Mohammadifar.

Crew: Camera (color), Bahram Badakhshani; editor, Mehrjui, Mastaneh Mohajer; music, Mohammad Reza Darvishi; art director, Mehrjui, Atusa Qalamfarsaie; sound, Asghar Shahrudi. Reviewed at Fajr Film Festival, Feb. 7, 2002. Running time: 95 MIN.

With: With: Masoumeh Bakhshi, Shadi Heydari, Neda Aghayi.

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