One of the only cinematic autobiographies to come out of Iran since the 1980 revolution, Abolfazi Jalili's "The First Letter" describes first love between a rebellious young Moslem hero and the Jewish girl next door. It shows the deportation of Jews after the revolution.

A correction was made to this review on Dec. 30, 2003.

One of the only cinematic autobiographies to come out of Iran since the 1980 revolution, Abolfazl Jalili’s “The First Letter” describes first love between a rebellious young Moslem hero and the Jewish girl next door. It shows the deportation of Jews after the revolution. And it insists the free-thinking hero, after surviving several arrests, is a devout Muslim. The Iranian authorities, who apparently found the film objectionable, did not allow Jalili to attend the premiere in Venice. With critical support, this intriguing if somewhat under-structured portrait of the artist as a young man should attract admirers throughout art film circles.

Jalili’s alter-ego Emkan (Mehdi Morady) is a rebellious 16-year-old high school boy, always getting into trouble with his teachers. His strict father (Abdolreza Akbary), a frustrated office worker, punishes him for playing the violin, taking photographs, practicing calligraphy and even for reading poetry. His mother gets a laugh when she warns him what dire things “the Prophet” had to say about people who go to the movies.

Emkan is one of those bright boys who is also strongly attracted to religion and Koran study (film’s title “abjad” refers to the ritual recital of the alphabet.) It’s just that his interpretation is broader than that of the religiously conservative town he lives in. Instead of using his first earnings to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, for instance, he buys food and organizes a huge soup kitchen for the poor. Jalili carefully shows the wide divergence of opinion people have about how the Koran is to be interpreted, and he comes down firmly on the side of a humanistic, loving religion.

The boy’s artistic talent gets him a job painting signs for a movie theater owner, for whose daughter Maassoum (Mina Molania) he develops a huge crush. The reason both families’ oppose the match so violently becomes clear only later, when it turns out that Maassoum is Jewish (clue: her father’s cinema is showing “Exodus”). But this doesn’t deter Emkan. He stubbornly continues painting hearts for her, and when the revolution comes along and the Jews are deported to an island in the Persian Gulf, he follows her there. Arrested by the police, beaten by her brothers, denounced by her family and arrested again, he never abandons his feelings.

In the central role, young Morady plays Emkan as fearlessly facing life head-on, making him a heroic figure. His sober confidence in front of the camera and unusual good looks put him several notches above most Iranian non-pros. Though she doesn’t have much of a role, Molania is also refreshing with her natural reactions to Emkan’s courtship. Akbary is notable as the stern father who surprises everyone by telling off the principal after he expels his son from school.

Given the interesting story, it’s a pity that the first part of the film tends to ramble on and repeat itself, with Emkan trying, and being punished for, every art form short of ballet dancing. The revolution, coming quite late in the film, marks a much-needed turning point in the action, but from there on events speed by much too sketchily, as though there were still years to cover and no time left. As his own editor, Jalili may have been too close to the material to balance it.

Cinematography by Mehdi Majde Vaziri champions the no-frills approach, framing only the essential.

The First Letter

Iran - France

Production

A Novem Prods./Arte France/TV Channel 2/Fonds Sud/Hubert Bals Fund production in association with Mikado Film/Jalili Film Office/Lovestream Films. (International sales: Menemsha Entertainment, Los Angeles and Munich.) Produced by Abolfazl Jalili. Executive producers, Emmanuel Benbihy, Mel G. Henderson. Directed, written, edited by Abolfazl Jalili.

Crew

Camera (color), Mehdi Majde Vaziri; music, Mohammad Reza Shajarian, Homayoun Shajarian; production-costume designer, Mohammadtaghy Jalili; sound (Dolby SR), Anne Le Campion, Katia Boutin, Geraldine Fallieu. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Upstream), Aug. 31, 2003. Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Emkan - Mehdi Morady Maassoum - Mina Molania Father - Abdolreza Akbary Mother - Fariba Khademy Grandfather - Gholamreza Tabatabaei
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