The midlife crisis of a successful professional man is put into the perspective of eternity in “A House Built on Water,” an ambitious film that attempts, not always successfully, to integrate realistically depicted life in today’s Iran with a poetically mystical dimension. The second feature helmed by veteran director and producer Bahman Farmanara since he moved back to Iran, it follows his autobiographical “Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine” with further reflections on the state of the country. Pic is notable for its cool layman’s view of topics ranging from abortion and drug addiction to prostitution and beyond. Its utterly modern outlook makes it a rarity on the Iranian scene and probably earmarks it for domestic success (it won best film in the national competition). Offshore, its very modernity and sophistication may reduce its curiosity value for markets attuned to Iranian exoticism and simplicity.
The fact that the film’s weary hero, Dr. Reza Sepidbakht (Reza Kianian), is a gynecologist in a world where women are obliged to hide every feminine attribute sets up the battle lines of hypocrisy vs. cynical reality. He lives alone with the servants in a mansion out of “Dallas,” barely conscious of his wife and children living in the U.S. and insensitive to his aged father’s unhappiness in a rest home. Surrounded by miffed nurses and secretaries who are his cast-off lovers, Reza spends drunken nights with call girls. Then one night, he runs over an “angel.” Touching the creature, he burns his hand with a wound that will not heal. This, and the recurring image of an old woman weaving together the threads of destiny, serve as reminders that there’s more to life than sex and money.
In the hospital, Reza is strangely moved by an 8-year-old boy who has become a media phenomenon because he’s able to recite the Koran by heart. He’s in a coma and his greedy family is desperate with fear that they won’t be able to exploit him anymore. Almost simultaneously, Reza’s teenage son Mani (Mehdi Safavi) turns up for a visit. But he is arrested at the airport for carrying heroin, plunging Reza into a nightmare in which he is called on to express love and responsibility.
Reaching for poetry and mysterious depths, Farmanara’s elusive narrative stumbles over thriller elements that lower the tone. Reza’s evil secretary (Hedye Tehrani), whom he foolishly trusts, informs someone of his every move. When his antagonists are finally visualized, they’re dressed like hit men from “Mission: Impossible.” Pic opts for a surreal, confused, mystical finale that feels more like wish fulfillment on Reza’s part than his spiritual rescue.
Believably cynical as the doctor, Kianian still earns sympathy for his struggle to get through life fighting off feelings of guilt. Ezat Entezami is equally rounded as his cantankerous old dad who refuses to repent for his mistakes.
Art director Jilla Mehrjui makes the film beautiful to look at, filling Reza’s home with paintings, sculpture and fine taste. The air of mystery is enhanced by Ahmad Pejman’s haunting score for reeds and harps.