Ostensibly a fast-paced tale about poor people in the Persian Gulf living aboard a sinking oil tanker, “Iron Island” is a galloping fable full of offbeat characters and entertaining moments. At the same time, it doesn’t take much to read this second feature from director Mohammad Rasoulof (“The Twilight”) as a sharp-edged allegory about the country of Iran. Festivals will be happy to sail on its irony and invention, though it may take auxiliary engines to market such a hard-to-classify little gem.
In his white turban and long robes, Ali Nasirian’s old Capt. Nemat (who is certainly a relative of Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo) runs a tight ship. This benevolent dictator is almost a father to the scores of poor, homeless, uneducated families who live on his immensely overcrowded tanker, anchored several hundred yards offshore.
Taking care of “accounts” keeps him in constant motion as he walks through the ship selling everything from medicine to cell phone calls. As a marriage broker, he intervenes in his tenants’ most intimate lives. He keeps them swarming around busily all day long, taking the ship apart to sell piece by piece as scrap iron. The fact that the ship’s owner and the “authorities” have ordered him to evacuate the place presents no problem. He simply refuses.
Following the illusions he holds up to them, everyone blindly obeys his orders, except the young boy Ahmad (Hossein Farzi-Zadeh), his love-sick assistant. The girl Ahmad pines for (Neda Pakdaman) is the property of her father, who has no intention of selling her cheaply. Ahmad’s only contact with his beloved — who, like all the other faceless women aboard, is hidden behind a sinister black face mask — is their tender nightly exchange of personal objects through the portholes.
Another beautiful character is the angelic Baby Fish, who spends his time wading through the tanker’s bowels with a net, catching small fish that have come in through the holes and gotten trapped. Then he lovingly liberates them into the sea.
Amusingly, the ship is ingeniously self-sufficient. A teacher holds class for the kids, using chalk made from paste poured into empty rifle cartridges. (He waits till the Captain’s not listening to slip a few words of truth into his lessons, like the fact the ship is sinking.) Funerals, weddings and births take place on board. Donkeys are brought up on a lift to draw oil out of the tanks. The half-filled barrels are then floated ashore by Nemat’s child laborers to waiting trucks.
One wonders where all this is leading, but Rasoulof pulls a satisfyingly disastrous finale out of his hat, sweetened only by the self-liberation of a single character.
Nasirian, one of Iran’s most noted actors, commands attention in his malicious portrayal of the captain. In the role of Ahmad, Farzi-Zadeh (the wild, condemned youth awaiting execution in “Beautiful City”) incorporates tropes of the non-professional actor in a subdued performance. Rasoulof chooses to keep the masses compact and anonymous, yet emphasizes their humanity through an almost documentary interest in their faces.
Editor Bahram Dehghan deserves a hand for pic’s fine, fast pacing that glances over so many things without needing to rub them in. Equally pleasing is Reza Jalali’s cinematography, which alternates bright Gulf sunlight with the blackest night interiors. Mohammad-Reza Aligholi’s parsimoniously dosed score is an exotic whisper of Oriental music.