The plot of Alireza Raisian’s third feature, like those of so many other Iranian films, is simplicity itself: A photographer and his wife are stranded in a village in the middle of nowhere when their car breaks down. The husband goes off with the village schoolteacher-cum-mechanic while the woman subs for the teacher, taking over the his one-room class. Beneath the innocent-seeming surface, though, swirl unsettling images of gutted railway cars, deformed children and stillborn sheep and the “lessons” exchanged by city and country proceed with the hesitancy of an alien encounter. This compelling underlying oddness may be enough to distinguish “Deserted Station” from similarly excellent humanistic Iranian fare, and Leila Hatami’s delicate beauty and nuanced performance (for which she was duly awarded in Montreal) certainly won’t hurt arthouse distrib chances either.
“Station” is variously credited as based on a story, theme or draft by Abbas Kiarostami. In any case, it’s easy to spot many of the maestro’s signature themes: the urban visitors out of their element in the country, their dependency on some form of technology that breaks down, their interaction with the locals, particularly with the children and a fascination with all forms of education. (The men walking along the road carting parts for a broken-down automobile and, later, a dysfunctional motorcycle recall Kiarostami’s short “The Wheel.”)
At the outset of the film, we see a man driving a car, apparently alone; he reacts to the scenery, consults a map, etc. It’s only when he stops and gets out to take a photo that a sleeping woman is surprisingly revealed as having been riding with him all along — and she registers as the one truly foreign element in the landscape. It turns out that the couple are on a religious pilgrimage they don’t quite believe in, traveling in the vague hope that prayer will prevent her third pregnancy from ending, like the others, in miscarriage or stillbirth. The husband, on the back of the teacher’s motorbike, gets a crash course in rural politics and the benevolence of public service.The teacher, in turn, learns about the astounding sums of money a well-composited photograph may be worth if they just wait long enough by the roadside for a particularly interesting cloud to enter the composition.Meanwhile, back in the village, the woman is increasingly drawn to the routines of the children–their intermingled classes, chores and play — the rituals erupting in prearranged patterns or in spontaneous waves. She soon finds herself clipping fingernails, tramping through fields, dictating lessons about Christopher Columbus (who was an African woman, according to one eager pupil) or playing extended games of hide and seek between abandoned railroad cars in the station graveyard, the voices of children echoing disturbingly through the windowless compartments.
As helmer Raisian has established, the children themselves have been abandoned — literally, by their fathers who have gone off to the cities to find employment, and emotionally, by their mothers who toil all day to support them. When the time comes for the woman to leave, the children run after her for miles. Through multiple, painful stop-and-start attempts, she must make them accept reality and return to the village.
Tech credits are uniformly excellent, Hossein Zandbaf’s editing never forcing the rhythms and Mohammad Aladpoush’s serene lensing assuring that the smattering of buildings on view takes on the shape of at least somebody’s hometown.