When a young bride steps on a land mine, passers-by try to comfort her while hubby goes for help in “The Riverside,” third feature by Iranian helmer Ali Reza Amini. Entirely peopled by Kurds attempting to cross the border into Iran during the recent U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, pic has a dynamite opening reel and features some poignant interludes, but settles into a monotonous rhythm, leaving a lot of loose ends by its bleak conclusion. Growing rep of Amini (“Letters in the Wind,” “Tiny Snowflakes”) and timely topic will help fest interest flow; distribution prospects look dicier.
Plot resembles Danis Tanovic’s “No Man’s Land.” But overriding mood is one of tragic fatalism rather than the bitter, Balkan black comedy of that 2002 Foreign Language Oscar winner.
In a desolate mountain pass near the Iranian border with Iraq, a beautiful young woman screams hysterically to her new husband for help when she realizes she’s stepped on an anti-personnel mine that will explode as soon as she lifts her foot. Handheld shots follow her groom as he races off across the rocks to get help, imploring his bride to stay put as the pounding opening song starts up.
Adrenaline is sustained with a harrowing bomb attack on a Kurdish city in Iraq’s Karkook region. Various people are seen running from their smashed homes. A radio report explains the attack is being launched by the Iraqi Army, not by U.S. or Coalition troops. (Helmer previously served as assistant director on Bahman Ghobadi’s Kurdistan-set “A Time for Drunken Horses,” and is clearly sympathetic to the Kurdish cause.)
As the dust settles, several disconnected refugees, alone and in groups, emerge as characters. An old woman hauls her two young granddaughters into her arms, constantly promising she won’t let them die. In painful counterpoint, a father carries his young son’s plastic-wrapped corpse to the border.
Meanwhile, adding a slightly comical touch, three men navigate their way through the rubble by following power lines from pylon to pylon, bickering all the time. Another young guy packing firearms may or may not be a sniper.
All find their way to the plain where the bride waits, increasingly distraught and thirsty. No one dares approach her, and the best they can do is to shout reassuring words of comfort. At one point, some form an ad hoc musical group with improvised instruments to soothe her, although the result is counterproductive.
First half of pic generates a fine sense of urgency. However, the intercutting between the various storylines as the characters converge on the bride has a flat, metronomic quality, and there’s little dramatic development in the midsection. Players are little more than emblematic ciphers, adrift in a desolate landscape which has the same brutally sublime quality as the rocky mining region in Amini’s previous “Tiny Snowflakes.” Title ironically refers to a body of water that, like hope in general, is never seen.
Acting varies in quality, with the thesp playing the distraught father giving the most moving perf, while the bride, with her shrill cries, becoming more irritating than sympathetic by the end. Lensing by Touraj Aslani, who also served on “Tiny Snowflakes,” has a kinetic muscularity, but color on print caught had a washed-out look. Other tech credits are patchy, particularly sound.