A tragicomedy about a plane hijacking, with New York’s concurrently collapsing Twin Towers glimpsed on airport TV, may not seem like good timing or good taste for an Iranian film. But “Low Altitude” by popular director Ebrahim Hatamikia defeats all expectations. Beyond its substantial entertainment value, film is an allegory for the crash landing for which Iranian society seems headed, as left- and right-wing factions struggle for control of the aircraft (and the country). As usual, it’s the most vulnerable people who suffer most. Adventurous distribs should take a look.
In a provincial airport, the friends and family of Ghassem (Hamid Farrokhnezhad) gather to fly at his expense to Bandar Abbas, a town on the Persian Gulf where he has procured them all jobs. No one seems to find his largess suspicious. The only person privy to Ghassem’s skyjacking scheme is his wife, Nargess (Leila Hatami), who tries to talk him out of it in the ladies room while he hides a gun on their retarded son.
Things go awry from the start, but Ghassem still manages to gain control of the plane by throwing scalding water on a guard. With most of the passengers beholden to him, and others willing to follow him to a Gulf state in hope of finding work, he seems on the verge of succeeding. Pic expertly veers back and forth between screaming tension and off-the-wall comedy furnished by his family’s nutty reactions.
The balance of power shifts from Ghassem to a hotheaded, patriotic guard intent on turning the plane back to Iran, to a conciliatory guard who tries to reason with him, and finally as a surprise to Nargess. Worldly wise, silver-haired pilot (Mohammad Ali Inanloo) keeps his cool through it all.
Famed for his war films, Hatamikia switches gears here, bringing his masterful control of tone and tension to a well-penned script. Farrokhnezhad (“Bride of Fire”) builds surprising sympathy for Ghassem, whose desperate plight at home gives him good reason to emigrate. His family comes from the Abadan desert bordering Iraq, decimated by the war and now afflicted with famine and thirst. He gets strong backing from the excellent Leila Hatami, torn between love for her husband and her loathing of violence. Character actress Gohar Kheirandish falls on the comic side of the cast as Nargess’ nagging, outspoken mother.
Hassan Puya’s widescreen lensing is pro, and Mohammad-Reza Aligholi’s music, including some Abadani folk songs, is well used.