This article was corrected on June 16, 2003.
“Marathon” constitutes a brilliant but demanding finale to veteran Iranian helmer Amir Naderi’s New York trilogy (“Manhattan by Numbers,” “ABC Manhattan”). Title refers not to running, but to one woman’s self-imposed 24-hour stint filling in crossword puzzles on Gotham subways and busses. Pic’s heroine, Gretchen (Sara Paul), rides along convoluted routes that correspond to some puzzle-solving part of her brain, the crisscrossed rails and arched subway tunnels echoing the horizontal and vertical grids of her all-consuming obsession. Mesmerizing black-and-white imagery and carefully etched vision of heroine’s dysfunctionality will wow fest auds, but paucity of characters and minimalist action may limit arthouse play.
Gretchen is a cipher with few clues to her identity. The only information comes in voiceovers from her answering machine; messages either from her checking in with herself, or from her mother, from whom she’s apparently inherited her crossword puzzle fixation. Determined to beat her personal record of 77 puzzles, Gretchen’s only direct human contact turns out to be as weird as she is — a guy who jumps his train to board hers and tries to pick her up, occasioning the film’s single passage of dialogue and a series of elaborate maneuvers on her part that finally leave them on opposite sides of the closing doors.
When she leaves the transit system for her apartment, Gretchen’s brain ceases to function, and she runs from one puzzle pasted on the wall to another, crossing out and then tearing down page after page in an orgy of panicked incomprehension. She finally manages to get back on track just before the final suspenseful count at the end of her allotted time (each crossword being meticulously stamped and numbered).
Unlike Aronofsky’s harsh “Pi,” pic’s brush with abstractly viewed NYC insanity is relatively benign, even humorous. As in all Naderi’s films, from the inhospitable desert of “Wind, Water, Dust” to the mean streets of “Manhattan by Numbers,” terrain is all-important, mapping out a habitat inseparable from the mental states of its compulsive denizens.
Tech credits are superlative, Naderi’s sound design capturing the complex heartbeat of a subway ride, while Michael Simmonds’ charcoal-gray lensing transforms Gotham’s rickety subway system into a work of art.